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Uber needs to say more than ‘I’m sorry’

Sally Herships Dec 10, 2014
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Uber needs to say more than ‘I’m sorry’

Sally Herships Dec 10, 2014
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Funny how the tables can turn. Uber was once tracking customers to see how many were doing the walk of shame. But now it’s the one looking like a hot mess.  

“When you think about brands, really people judge them the exact same way that you judge people,”says Alyson Schonholz, group director, strategy and insights, at strategic branding firm Siegel+Gale. Uber could start cleaning up its reputation by admitting its mistakes, she says, but what it really needs to do is change its business practices so the same problems don’t happen again.

Consider the case of gas and oil giant BP, when it faced a PR crisis a few years ago. 

“They decided to shift their brand from British Petroleum to BP and they launched a new logo that was much more friendly and in tune with environment. But that just became lipstick on pig,” said Schonholz.  “There were no real actions behind it that showed people that they were a different kind of company. And people are smarter than that. And they expect more from their brands. So to just apologize alone isn’t going to be enough for Uber.”

In some ways Uber is like a little kid sitting at the adult’s table for the first time. But no one’s taught it table manners yet — which fork to use or trained company executives to deal with the media or with a crisis. “What is obvious about Uber is that they don’t have a crisis-management strategy in place — at all,” said Brad Hecht, chief research officer at Reputation Institute. 

You have to respond immediately. You have to be transparent,” he said. You have to apologize and be accountable and you have to have a plan for how you’re looking to resolve it.”

When it comes to reputation, it’s not really about the problem, it’s about how a company reacts.

Just look at Home Depot and Target. In the past year, both companies found they’d been the victims of data breaches. Target executives had a delayed response, didn’t fully admit to what the problem was or offer a plan to resolve it, Hecht says. But Home Depot immediately apologized and put a plan in place to provide a fix. The result were visible  in both company’s stock prices.

“Really Home Depot just ended up having small blip, while Target’s dropped significantly,” Hecht says.

In a blog post, Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick says the company’s growth has come with growing pains. And acknowledging its mistakes are the first steps toward fixing them. 

“Done right, it will lead to a smarter and more humble company that sets new standards in data privacy, gives back more to the cities we serve and defines and refines our company culture effectively,” Kalanick wrote.

Peter Himler, founder of PR firm Flatiron Communications, says Uber needs help.

“I’m not sure that Uber has been as contrite and earnest as they could be,” he said.  But he says, luckily for the company, it has some powerful backers in its corner who stood up for Uber during some of its its recent problems. For instance, actor Ashton Kutcher and Internet entrepreneur Jason Calacanis both have huge social media followings and have expressed support for Uber, Himler says.

And while Uber may be feeling growing pains, the company is continuing to grow.

Uber’s valuation is in the multibillions, and the company has a firm grip globally, Himler says.

“They’re making billions, I believe, around the world,” he said. “So, there’s no stopping them at this point  even with these gaffes they’re going to prevail.”

CORRECTION: A version of this story briefly mispelled the last name of Jason Calacanis.

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