InsightaaS: There is a growing buzz around Uber's approach to business. At one point, the buzz was positive, reflecting the company's massive $18 billion valuation, supported by a $1.2 billion financing round in June. Then things started to get strange. A bizarre scheme to undercut Lyft was reported by The Verge, Tech Crunch, Business Insider and others. More recently, at a high-profile dinner, a senior executive "suggested that the company should consider hiring a team of opposition researchers to dig up dirt on its critics in the media – and specifically to spread details of the personal life of a female journalist who has criticized the company," according to BuzzFeed, which had an editor at the event.
This has led to widespread speculation around Uber: will its business practices pull apart an otherwise spectacularly successful enterprise? The company certainly has the time and capital to ride through a rough patch or two, but as today's featured post, taken from LinkedIn,observes, Uber's management behaviour may "risk undermining a potentially unicorn-level franchise."
Like many of you, I consider myself a happy end-user of Uber and have been truly impressed with the consistency and wide-range of innovations, from inventive delivery extensions to more recent Spotify integration. In fact, if pressed I probably would have said recently Uber was as close to an unstoppable force in our tech ecosystem as one can get.
But upon learning recently that their top Business Development executive recently floated the suggestion at a high profile dinner of press and so-called "influentials" that Uber could and should hire a team of opposition researchers to unearth "dirt" on selected journalists, and further could leverage their proprietary ride-tracking data to unearth embarrassing details, my jaw dropped. And as I have been following the ensuing backlash, on Twitter and elsewhere, I have realized that there are actually multiple waves of shock and awe here:
- This is NOT just a PR controversy. Uber has acknowledged its challenges in media relations, and in fact brought in a heavy hitter from the Obama camp (former campaign manager David Plouffe) to right the ship. I'm guessing this particular event was orchestrated as part of that new strategy. But to suggest that the "off the record" protocol of the event was under-clarified, or that the context of the evening in question was social and full of wine/women/song as Michael Wolff attempts to portray, is just asinine. It would be one thing if an Uber exec were to pop off an inflammatory or derogatory remark about an individual journalist, and later proclaim alcohol-impaired poor judgement as an excuse. But to boast at such a high-profile event (Arianna Huffington, Mort Zuckerman etc) about an insidious but all-too-credible threat to leverage proprietary corporate data against critics of the company, is far beyond the pale of normal corporate banter (and btw Wolff should know better than to suggest that a journalist should presume such an affair is off the record)..