Uber, the once beloved taxi company, is now known under the hashtag #DeleteUber. In January, Uber did not stop their taxis from going to JFK airport after US president Trump had declared his entry ban whereas regular taxi drivers stopped their work out of protest. Uber was accused of breaking the strike and the hastag #DeleteUber became trending on Twitter. According to the New York Times, a striking number of 200.000 customers deleted their account on Uber. The main competitor of Uber in the United States, Lyft, took advantage of this negative publicity and ranked higher in the appstore for the first time. De CEO Travis Kalanick responded a couple days later on this issue with ‘we didn’t mean it this way’.
After this storm of critique, Uber is now accused of sexism by former employees. #DeleteUber became trending again and even though Uber responded more quickly and firm (they started to investigate the cases of sexual intimidation leaded by a former minister of Justice) it seems that the damage is done. To make it even worse, the CEO is captured on camera when he lashes out an Uber driver. In a note to employees he says that he’s willing to change, but an Uber spokesman declined to comment on the topic this Tuesday. It seems that finding the right communication is a struggle for Uber, what can they learn from academic research?
Monitoring social media
First, Uber had to monitor and manage social media in the earliest stage of the crisis events. In a lot of research about crisis communication the role of media and the public is overlooked. However, due to the social-media empowerment of todays’ society it is crucial for a company to look closely at the social media coverage of the crisis. Research even found that crisis frames among PR, media and the public can align over time. Because of the negative reactions on Twitter of the public this negative frame was transferred to the media and PR professionals were questioned about their opinion on Uber’s communication. In a study about the use of social media in the Chaesundang crisis, Twitter was found to be the leading outlet of crisis related reports in terms of both volume and content. If Uber had monitored early crisis signals, #DeleteUber was not that widespread.
Second, Uber had to respond earlier and more firm to the #DeleteUber movement. A prompt response is necessary in these times, since the speed of information through social media is fast and widespread. If Uber had responded more firm, they could have prevented further escalation of the negative crisis framing of the event.
Last, Uber should have chosen the right way to respond to the crisis. An experiment found that the different strategies that can be used in crisis communication: an apology, expression of sympathy and compensation, caused similar reactions among respondents. The statement ‘we didn’t mean it this way’ to the taxi strike and the no comment to the strokes of the CEO fit none of these categories. The response to the sexual intimidation is an example how the communication of Uber should have been for all the crisis events.
In my opinion, Uber’s reputation is in serious danger and it is time for a change regarding their communication strategy!
Judith Koster is an enthusiastic, eager Persuasive Communication student at the University of Amsterdam who would love to work in retail when she’s finished. After an internship at a large Dutch women magazine she thought of PR as a shallow profession. The course ‘PR, Media and Public’ at the UvA opened her eyes: the way Public Relations is interacting with the media and society is an interesting and exciting field.