Commentary

Uber CEO Apologizes For Exec's Remarks - But Is That Good Enough?

There’s little doubt that a plot to gather dirt on journalists was a smart idea — and it’s even stupider to brag about it — but articles emerging about the Uber brouhaha this morning have an “and that’s not all” ring to them reminding us that the ride-sharing startup is the pin-up boy for an arrogant, megalomaniacal culture that is all too common in the tech world.

“Silicon Valley tends to think it doesn't have to live by the same rules as everyone else, Lucy Marcus, founder and CEO of Marcus Venture Consulting in London, tells Jessica Guynn and Elizabeth Weise in USA Today.

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“There's a sense that you can do whatever the heck you want for the sake of building your business,” Marcus said.

That’s surely not the kind of storytelling Obama campaign adviser David Plouffe had in mind when he took the job of overseeing branding and communications at Uber few months ago.

In case you haven’t heard, last week “at a supervillains retreat in Manhattan, Uber executive Emil Michael floated a plan to hire opposition researchers to investigate journalists. They could look into ‘your personal lives, your families,’ Michael wisely told a group that included BuzzFeed EIC Ben Smith. Creepiness aside, what does Michael think he'd find on most of us?” asked the Poynter Institute’s Andrew Beaujonis his dailyroundup of top media storiesyesterday.

Michael, who is Uber’s senior vice president of business, “made the comments in a conversation he later said he believed was off the record,” Smith duly reported in breaking the story Monday. “In a statement through Uber Monday evening, he said he regretted them and that they didn’t reflect his or the company’s views.”

Uber founder Travis Kalanick “took to Twitter on Tuesday to apologize” for Michael’s remarks, “but didn't fire him,” reports Mashable’s Todd Wasserman. He began a series of 13 posts with “1) Emil's comments at the recent dinner party were terrible and do not represent the company” and “2) His remarks showed a lack of leadership, a lack of humanity, and a departure from our values and ideals.”

Michael singled out Pando Daily editor Sarah Lacy, who wrote a piece last month carrying the hed, “The horrific trickle down of Asshole culture: Why I’ve just deleted Uber from my phone.” It followed up on an earlier item about Uber “post[ing] an ad that encouraged, played on, and celebrated treating women who may choose to drive cars to make extra money like hookers.” That followed a self-described “6,000-word rant on Silicon Valley assholes having private conversations with the VCs who fund them.”

Uber executives have been doing their unwitting best to prove the point.

“This is a tale of corporate arrogance, of hostility toward journalists, and of one woman who stood up to one of the fastest-growing companies in America,” says Fox News’ Howard Kurtz. "It’s also a disaster for Uber, which once enjoyed the image of a cool, innovative company that outsmarted the taxi industry and now seems like a gang of adolescent dirt-diggers.”

“Maybe Uber is a little drunk off its own success. Maybe it thinks the numbers make it invincible — and maybe it's right,’ observes Slate’s Alison Griswold. “Even so, with each added controversy, Uber is risking, however slightly, alienating the people that make its platform possible.”

The New York Times’ Farhad Manjoo writes that Uber “is facing its toughest challenge yet — curbing its ugliest, most aggressive impulses before its win-at-all-cost culture begins to turn off investors.” Uber so far has raised $1.5 billion and is valued at $17 billion, as Manjoo points out.

“The more stories that come out about Uber behaving badly — whether it’s about the way it competes with rivals or the fact that an executive discussed looking into journalists — the risk is that it starts to become the main story about the company, rather than the great service it provides or its low prices,” Jan Dawson, an independent industry analyst, tells Manjoo.

Pando Daily’s Lacy yesterday wrote that the “new attacks threatened to hit at my only vulnerability. The only part of my life that I’d do anything to protect: My family and my children.” She later calls on “forces more powerful than me in the Valley — or even Washington DC — [to] see this latest horror as a wake-up call and decide this is enough.”

Plouffe, as far as I can tell, has not weighed in yet. As SVP of policy and strategy, it’s time that he did, wouldn’t you say?

2 comments about "Uber CEO Apologizes For Exec's Remarks - But Is That Good Enough?".
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  1. Nina Lentini from MediaPost Communications, November 19, 2014 at 9:15 a.m.

    Wow, great point, Thom. Haven't seen anyone else ask, "Where is David Plouffe?" Great column!

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, November 19, 2014 at 6:27 p.m.

    Plouffe - leave. The end.

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