#DeleteUber: Did CEO Travis Kalanick Set Himself Up For “The Tweet Heard ‘Round The World?”

Screen shot of an Uber customer who isn't just deleting the Uber app. They are deleting their Uber account and showing others the difference.

It’s been a week since Uber’s New York City account tweeted itself into the firestorm that turned into #DeleteUber. From what looks to be a single tweet, the fallout has been so severe and seemingly unstoppable, we would not be shocked to hear of CEO Travis Kalanick’s resignation next.

#DeleteUber has many real-world implications regarding the instantaneous influence of social media; the evolving role of public relations in the social media environment; and the market consequences of public statements. This encapsulates many of the key issues in media and marketing that we are obsessed with at Flood, so we’ve decided to take an in-depth look at what happened this week.

What Happened?
#DeleteUber is a social media storm that began the evening of Saturday, January 28 in the midst of a protest of Trump’s travel ban at a New York City airport.

In response to President Trump’s Executive Order on Friday, January 27 to immediately ban all immigration/transit by nationals of seven countries (shockingly, this included people already in transit), New York City cab drivers organized a strike from 6pm-7pm on Saturday, suspending service to and from JFK airport. JFK is the largest airport in New York City and serves the vast majority of international travelers moving in and out of New York.

Here’s the New York Taxi Workers Alliance statement about the strike:

Half an hour after the end of the taxi strike, the NYC Uber account made what is likely the most ill-fated tweet in the history of the company. Take away this tweet and the controversy basically disappears.

Here is the ‘tweet that launched a thousand (sic) Uber app deletions:’

In what is a great irony of public relations and a perfect illustration of the multiple levels of perception in social media, Uber likely made the decision to “turn off” surge pricing due to the lingering effects of an uproar over “surge pricing” from the end of 2014. Uber came under fire for what customers, particularly those in New York City, considered price gouging during high demand hours. The media storm surrounding those stories took over a month to subside.

Uber most likely sent this tweet in order to pre-empt the perception their operation would profit from dreaded “surge pricing” during the taxi strike. Uber’s well-intended move even got blowback from customers claiming they were trying to profit from the strike by discounting prices to increase sales and “turning Uber drivers into scabs” to break the taxi strike.

Target #1: Uber Just Made A No-Win Conversation A No-Win Conversation About Uber
In terms of visibility, large public businesses in 2017 are as heavily monitored by citizen activists as politicians. This situation is too muddled to be a classic “don’t stick your finger in the beehive” scenario, but Uber, the big, publicly scrutinized company, and their tweet fits the profile.

Uber is correct in perceiving they are not an invisible factor in this situation. No doubt, Uber felt some show of solidarity with the taxi drivers’ protest was in order, if for no better reason than prove their values to be in sync with the predominantly liberal values of Silicon Valley, the natural social habitat of most US tech companies.

Never mind that Uber is attacking the very business model of cab drivers daily. And that supporting cabbies is 100% contradictory to Uber’s actual market position. (For example, Uber “wins” when cabs disappear from the face of the earth.) But like a sympathetic jock trying to score points with the cool kids when the Principal cracks down on subversive activities, Uber’s piping up in this situation only served to draw attention to the various deficits they bring to the total equation.

The meltdown is immediate. It takes under an hour for “the tweet” to:

  1. Be interpreted in a negative light.
  2. Be propagated through the ranks of protestors.
  3. Become incorporated into the protestors’ anti-Trump narrative.
  4. Become incorporated into the online protest of millions of social media users, sympathetic to protestors, who are watching all of this unfold in real time.

Target #2: Since We’re Talking About Uber, How About That Trump “Collaborator” Travis Kalanick?
Uber’s CEO is was on Trump’s Economic Advisory Council. So is Elon Musk. But Elon Musk isn’t tweeting about solidarity with the fossil fuel industry he’s trying to destroy in the midst of a public protest. Protests are a public relations vortex. To protestors, collaborating with the enemy in times of battle is unforgivable.

Before the proverbial can of worms is opened with ‘the tweet,’ it looks like Kalanick may have set himself up to be the fall guy for this particular protest by publishing a very in-depth statement about the travel ban earlier in the afternoon. In the statement (below), Kalanick highlights his own controversial involvement with the Trump administration.

This is a pixelated screenshot of Kalanick’s statement published on Facebook, an hour and a half before the cabbie strike, and three hours before “the tweet” at 7:38pm ET:

Post from Uber CEO Travis Kalanick’s Facebook Page three hours previous to ‘the tweet.’

Note in the preface to Kalanick’s post, there is a certain off-handedness, even haplessness to his reasoning for sharing an internal document he ‘thought I would include here.’ Buried in the middle of this internal document is the very important public message that Uber will be compensating drivers affected by the travel ban. It is even possible the New York Taxi Workers Alliance saw this post and orchestrated a strike as a way to one-up Kalanick’s attempt to position Uber, a hated enemy of taxi drivers everywhere, as a righteous agent of social virtue.

The Underdog Clamoring For Brand Recognition And Market Share Scores Big*
Uber’s competitor Lyft never stopped service, continuing surge pricing throughout the taxi strike. Yet, by keeping quiet, Lyft was able to capitalize on Uber’s uber-mistake in a big way. In what was clearly a response to Uber’s stumble, Lyft pledged $1 million to the American Civil Liberties Union early Sunday afternoon. This timely response perfectly positioned Lyft to scoop up customers abandoning Uber en-masse.

It worked. On Sunday, Lyft overtook Uber in number of downloads, then moved into the top 10 downloaded apps in Apple’s App Store, according to this TechCrunch article.

“We Didn’t Mean It,”  And Other Damage Control That “Feels Fake” 
There has been so much damage control by Uber since this event, we could benefit from an interactive timeline to keep track of all of it. We don’t have a small army of staff to put something like that together, so we’ve put together this timeline:

Please bear with us as we just give you a tremendous amount of interesting information:

  • Jan. 27: Friday, Trump signs executive order
  • Jan. 28: Saturday 4:34pm, Kalanick publicly posts the internal memo to his Facebook page about the travel ban. The statement includes that he will be compensating affected Uber drivers for lost work for three months. He also extensively discusses his controversial position on Trump’s Economic Advisory Council.
  • Jan. 28: Saturday 6pm-7pm ET, one hour strike by NYC cabbies at JFK to protest travel ban.
  • Jan. 28: Uber’s NYC account sends out “the tweet” at 7:38pm that people said “was turning Uber drivers into scabs,” in the cabbie protest. This perception caused a major social media uproar pretty much instantly.

  • Jan. 29: “We Didn’t Mean It” Tweet #1 sent at 12:33am ET – late Saturday night/early Sunday morning – from Uber’s NYC account:

  • Jan. 29: Early Sunday morning at 1:04am ET/10:04pm PT – within six hours of “the tweet,” comes “We Didn’t Mean It” Tweet #2 with an attached statement, “Standing Up For What Is Right,” yet another reposting of CEO Kalanick’s internal email from Saturday afternoon doubling down on the importance of his involvement with Trump’s Advisory Council.This is the first public tweet about a policy Kalanick put into place before ‘the tweet.’ However, this tweet appears 5 1/2 hours after ‘the tweet.’ To the public, it appears to be an apologetic response to the controversy, and therefore a contrived PR move (fake) reaction. Announcing that, “We are sorry. We will compensate lost wages,” after the controversy sounds like an admission of guilt.Had the 1:04am tweet below been posted when the announcement of solidarity was made – at 4:34pm Saturday – instead of being buried deep in Kalanick’s published memo, Uber would have had a strong public position backing up its drivers. But the, “We’ll compensate drivers impacted by the ban” message was never thoughtfully presented to the public when it was announced, and whoever did see it, saw it in an internal memo that ends with a long rationalization about Kalanick’s collaboration with Trump.

  • Jan. 29: Competition Lyft responds with one-upmanship early Sunday afternoon at 12:25pm with $1 million donation to ACLU, playing directly into the hands of the social media protestors.

New York Taxi Workers Association Statement on #DeleteUber

Leaving the council may or may not be the end of the backlash from “the tweet.” Given the serious cultural and economic results of what has transpired, Kalanick’s resignation would not be out of the question.

Take-aways From #DeleteUber
In the merger of society and media, there are no editors moderating what information ‘gets out’ about a situation. When first hand information is being openly interpreted by the public with no filter, the time tested adage “less is more” has never been more relevant. The narrative of the day is a concoction of ‘events that factually happen’ mixed with ‘the current mood and perception of the public.’

For a public figure or company, this politicized social media environment is almost akin to ‘talking to the cops.’ As Regent Law Professor James Duane points out in his eye-opening video “Don’t Talk To The Police,” the problem isn’t just that you may incriminate yourself for the crime being investigated. By talking an entity under scrutiny risks revealing perceived inconsistencies that lead authorities to investigate anything they weren’t already aware of. In the case of social media protests, investigation skips directly to conclusion more often than not.

It’s a somewhat subtle point that boils down to this: The more information you voluntarily publish, the more opportunity you give opposition to grab ahold of a negative narrative; attach it to you; and sink you with it. This is the kind of 2017 reality a high profile CEO of a controversial tech company should be aware of, and if Kalanick does lose his job, it will be because he failed this test of public relations leadership.

*Cultural caveat: In the world of social media PR, there are few clearly defined wins and losses. Part of the reason is that in the democratization of information, coastal citizens have the same clunky Twitter and Facebook technology and news feeds available to ‘Middle America.’ This means that there could very well be blowback against Lyft for its support of the ACLU. However, in this particular scenario, the vast majority of Uber and Lyft business is conducted in major metropolitan areas, areas that tend to reflect ‘Silcon Valley’ values. Hence, even if there were negatives against Lyft, the advantages of being popular with the target demographic presumably outweigh.

About

TR Brogunier is a media consultant for Flood Content working in Tennessee, North Carolina and Georgia. You are welcome to follow our Facebook page and @FloodContent Twitter account used almost exclusively to notify followers of content being posted.

Glossary

  • blowback, noun — a consequence, negative outcome or negative response to a course of action; similar to backlash, but less general and usually characterized by some kind of targeting

Terms coined in this essay

  • cultural caveat, noun — in terms of public relations, while it may appear one social media outcome is apparent, there are two sides to every equation. For example, by all media measures, Trump had more than enough negative PR to eliminate him from ever becoming president. However the hidden support for Trump that turned out to elect him president could be referred to as a massive ‘cultural caveat,’ an exception to what was apparently the rule regarding his support.

 

Facebook Comments