Uber — Institutionalized Media Relations Incompetence


Monday evening BuzzFeed reported that Emil Michael, Uber’s Sr. VP for Business Development, discussed at a private dinner his plans for “helping Uber fight back against the press.” These plans included finding dirt on journalists he finds objectionable and getting other journalists to write about that undesirable information. In other words, he wanted to smear the offending journalists, the most vocal of whom is a woman. The New York Times reported, “this incident puts a renewed focus on Uber’s confrontational attitude toward the press.” Uber has to realize that this type of institutional bias towards the media is a very dangerous position. Targeted audiences from drivers to consumers will be turned off by this kind of heavy-handed approach. Sure, Michael offered an apology the next day but it was insincere and lacked integrity. Not an effective way to build a brand, let alone your business.  

As one who has had a long career representing clients in the media, I can tell you with certainty that Mr. Michael is not the first person to discuss these types of plans. In fact, there have been many instances where mean and nasty tricks have been conducted to hurt journalists. What management has to learn is that they cannot control what a journalist will write about them and their firms. This is a difficult concept to grasp, especially for many who are often control freaks.

Uber and Mr. Michael show a complete lack of understanding about how the media works. The end goal is not to get journalists to write what we call “puff” pieces, which are completely unrealistic. The goal must be to engage journalists to write about a company and its senior executives in a manner that is fair, timely, accurate and unbiased. Obtaining this kind of coverage does not happen overnight; it is a process. It may take some time, but there is a method to the madness. Here’s what I would advise Uber:

  1. Get Over It—Not every journalist is going to write lovely pieces on you. And not all journalists are the second coming of Horace Greeley. In fact, many journalists have agendas. They are biased. They are unreasonable. They are looking to make a name for themselves, even if it comes at your expense. Learn which journalists can be friend, which foe.
  2. Reach Out—Don’t work with journalists out of fear. Build relationships with journalists any way you can. Be creative, be credible. Have lunch and get to know them as people. Learn what types of stories they like to write about. Be helpful. Supply information for future stories with full transparency.
  3. Introduce Senior Management—Find ways to have senior managers and journalists “press the flesh.” Encourage one-on-one dialogue. Make management available to serve as sources for industry news. Help journalists do their job better.
  4. Get Management Media Trained—Be totally prepared. Leave nothing to chance. Media training will educate senior management on what journalists need and how to interact. It can also play a big role in making any future stories more interesting and a whole lot less stressful.

Uber must rectify very poor media relations. To do otherwise is management incompetence.