The first time I saw anyone use Uber was in 2012, on the campaign trail. I was with a bunch of reporters who were peeling off the Paul Ryan bus for a few days of down time. The Ryan team dropped us off after midnight at Washington, D.C.’s Union Station. No one was looking forward to getting a cab at that hour. Reporters began chattering about Uber. One by one, private cars pulled up, and reporters were whisked into the night.
No wait. No hassle. Incredible.
Since then, I’ve used the smartphone-based car service a few times. I almost deleted the app last summer when I got a taste of Uber’s “surge pricing” -- Uber wanted to charge me $100 for the two-mile trip between the Venice and Santa Monica piers. As if.
This morning, though, I deleted the app for good. I just can’t patronize a company whose executives show such disregard for customer safety, customer privacy and the right of journalists to pursue their work free of dirty tricks and retribution.
Uber, after growing like crazy for five years and fighting off government regulators, taxi companies and competitors, is in the middle of a self-inflicted public relations disaster. Its executives, who are used to being cooed over for their pugnacious, win-at-all-costs approach, have finally gone too far.
Two days ago, BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith reported attending a New York dinner last Friday at which Uber’s senior vice president for business, Emil Michael, mused about spending a million dollars and hiring four opposition researchers and four reporters who would dig up dirt on the lives of journalists who have written critically about the company. They would get, as Smith put it, “a taste of their own medicine.”
Smith wrote: “Michael was particularly focused on one journalist, Sarah Lacy, the editor of the Silicon Valley websitePandoDaily, a sometimes combative voice inside the industry. Lacy recently accused Uber of 'sexism and misogyny.' She wrote that she was deleting her Uber app after BuzzFeed News reported that Uber appeared to be working with a French escort service.”
Lacy has indeed written several long, anguished pieces about the pervasive sexism in Silicon Valley’s start-up culture, particularly painful to her as PandoDaily shares many of the same venture capitalist investors as some of the worst offenders, including Uber.
One of her catchier leads: “A big debate among the Pando staff for the past two years has been over just how morally bankrupt Uber is.”
She details a litany of complaints against the company -- its attitude toward drivers and passengers as “disposable commodities,” the failure of driver background checks, a “blame the passenger” culture at the company when things go south between drivers and passenger, unsavory tactics used against its most important ride-share competitor, Lyft.
“We’ve seen it in the company’s PR team discrediting female passengers who accuse drivers of attacking them by whispering that they were ‘drunk’ or ‘dressed provocatively,’” Lacy wrote. She has also written disparagingly of 38-year-old Uber CEO Travis Kalanick for calling the company "boober" -- a reflection of the salutary effect his company's success has had on his sex life.
On Thursday, BuzzFeed reported that the company has apparently abused its internal company tool “God View,” which shows the locations of Uber vehicles and Uber customers who have requested cars. The company has tracked reporters, and random users, without their permission. BuzzFeed reporters Johana Bhuiyan and Charlie Warzel offered an anecdote about venture capitalist Peter Sims, who was none too happy to learn his movements were being tracked by Uber for the amusement of guests at an Uber launch party three years ago:
“Back in 2011, he wrote, he was in an Uber car in Manhattan when he started receiving text messages from someone he barely knew telling him exactly where he was. That person later told him that she was at an Uber launch party in Chicago, where Sims’ movements were being tracked via God View on a large public screen. ‘After learning this,’ he wrote, ‘I expressed my outrage to her that the company would use my information and identity to promote its services without my permission. She told me to calm down, and that it was all a ‘cool’ event and ... I should be honored to have been one of the chosen.’"
Like so many Silicon Valley startups, Uber does have an inspiring back story. In December's Vanity Fair, Kara Swisher profiles Uber's pugnacious co-founder Kalanick, detailing how he turned an idea for an on-demand car service in 2008 into a $18.2-billion company.
It’s a largely favorable piece about a guy who does not back down. (“Whereas Silicon Valley start-ups tend to give their conference rooms whimsical, sweet names like Twinkie and Pong," writes Swisher, "the main conference room in Uber’s swanky new offices on San Francisco’s Market Street is called War Room.”)
Yet Kalanick has certainly misjudged the public’s appetite for his company’s chest-pounding ways.
“What we maybe should’ve realized sooner,” Kalanick told Swisher, “was that we are running a political campaign, and the candidate is Uber.”
In August, Uber hired David Plouffe, the architect of Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, to lead the company’s public policy and communications efforts.
“I don’t subscribe to the idea that the company has an image problem,” Plouffe told Swisher. “I actually think when you are a disrupter, you are going to have a lot of people throwing arrows.”
Yeah, well, right now, disruption is the least of Uber’s problems. The company is in a fix because its executives are arrogant and foolish. No amount of high-class political advice is going to change the fact that they have inflicted on themselves a huge black eye.
Whether customers will care remains to be seen.