Uber embroiled in alarming PR crisis—and the time to act is now

by | Apr 3, 2019 | Analysis, Public Relations

Once again, Uber has become embroiled in a tragedy it had no control over. It is a sign of your pervasiveness in society that a killing perpetrated by one of your independent drivers, or even someone posing as your driver, can tarnish your reputation in spite of every effort to safely transport customers from Point A to Point B.

The death of University of South Carolina student Samantha Josephson is horrible, and we can all be thankful that the alleged killer is in police custody. But who among us can’t relate to the specifics of this situation…we are waiting for a summoned ride, a vehicle pulls up and signals us, and we get in the backseat, simply putting our faith in the fact this is an approved vehicle with a vetted driver.

It happens hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of times, daily, to the point the routine has become part of the fabric of transportation in the 21st century. Uber has become a verb as surely as Google as a result. But a tear in that fabric can rip at consumers’ peace of mind about a process that once would’ve made any sane person, let alone an over-protective parent, take pause: get in the car of a complete stranger? Are you out of your mind?

Uber has worked hard to overcome that internal safety catch, cultivating a business where it’s not just perceived to be safe, but essential, and even desirable when the alternative is getting behind the wheel while intoxicated. So in order to stanch the negative press surrounding this terrible crime, the company must take some proactive steps, without hesitation. Here are some suggestions:

  • While no company wants to admit that nefarious individuals are duping customers using its brand, the company must acknowledge that this is happening, and indeed may be on the rise. Uber has to come out publicly with a warning, across all media channels including in-app, as soon as possible.
  • Uber has to create a customer safety checklist, and launch a media blitz to promote it. This checklist should include tips like making sure to match your driver’s license plate to that you see on the app before approaching a vehicle, and asking the driver for their name before getting in to confirm it is the vehicle you summoned. The Uber website already offers general safety tips, but this should be a new document, backed by a new media campaign.
  • Although the company wasn’t at fault, it should issue a statement expressing sympathy for the victim’s family, combined with a promise to take whatever steps are necessary to ensure passengers feel safe with their ride and driver. This shouldn’t be an apology, but putting your head in the sand is not an appropriate response.
  • Uber should remind customers of its emergency hotline, and adapt it if necessary for non-emergencies, such as confirming that a vehicle is legitimate and in good standing with the company.

Sometimes despite your best efforts, your company name will be dragged through the mud. By responding quickly, offering support and transparency, reiterating protocols and processes, and letting customers know you care, you’ll go a long way toward mitigating the damage—even if the damage wasn’t of your making in the first place.

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Gary Frisch
Gary Frisch is founder and president of Swordfish Communications, a full-service public relations agency in Laurel Springs, N.J.

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