Ubering Through Crisis

Ubering Through Crisis
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In our age of lightning-speed events, Uber has gone from being a cutting-edge insurgent "David" to a corporate Goliath on the defensive. The latest catalyst was the murders by Uber driver Jason Dalton of six people (he shot eight). Chillingly, Dalton casually picked up fares in between killing seemingly random targets.

From a crisis management perspective, Uber has predictably defended its background check protocols asserting that "No background check would have flagged and anticipated this situation. If there's nothing on someone's record, then no background check is going to raise a flag." On the surface, Dalton very much seemed like a standard driver who posed very little risk to Uber customers. He also had high ratings from consumers since becoming a driver in late January.

Other young companies have been caught in a blindingly quick overnight transition from cool disrupter to villain. Chipotle, the "cool" quick service restaurant that touts all-natural ingredients similarly became a villain overnight when, in late 2015, consumers across the U.S. became ill from eating the chain's food.

As I discuss in my crisis management book, Glass Jaw, there is an alarming ease with which once-powerful companies are rendered fragile by their critics. The new crisis management physics are that the more people appear to love your product or service, the easier it is to knock you off. Forget what you may have read about "building trust": When the news is bad enough, goodwill evaporates in a flash. Needless to say, it's a lot more fun to be a cocky David who is throwing punches (often with little consequence) than it is to be a besieged Goliath.

What's more, in these situations where Goliath has lost its footing, the usual PR mantras about "telling your side of the story" collapse under the weight of the harsh reality than when you're under fire, not many people want to hear your side of the story.

Having spent more than three decades in the crisis management business, I'm rather stingy about what I declare to be a crisis. For example, just because of the drumbeat of steady bad news about domestic violence in the NFL, did people stop going to pro football games? Hardly. And, despite the cascading scandals involving steroids in Major League Baseball, attendance at games went up during the lifespan of that controversy.

As for Uber, I suspect that the personally relevant, tangible benefits of this service won't drive many people away from the company's cars just because the occasional madman surfaces. After all, one has just as much chance (if not more) of being harmed by a regular taxi driver than an Uber driver. Furthermore, Uber users really like Uber and are going to be receptive to messages that give them permission to keep Ubering.

None of this is to say that Uber can ignore what's happening - and they haven't. Nevertheless, the solutions, as with Chipotle, lie more in operations than in public relations. Simply put, if Uber remains demonstrably vigilant about background checks for its drivers and other safety protocols and adverse events recede, the company will continue to prosper. Chipotle is seeing this trend now -- the Centers for Disease Control has declared Chipotle's food crisis to be over, consumers have ceased getting sick at Chipotle, and the initial reports indicate that Chipotle's sales are rebounding. All are strong markers that Chipotle will have a robust turnaround.

As we track Uber's crisis management, we should look less for cinematic gestures than some combination of practical operational improvements (and consumer assurances) and its capacity to endure crises and nuisances alike. Sheer endurance is the most unheralded form of crisis management and my guess is that the commitment consumers have to Uber's business will overpower whatever doubts they may have about events that have occurred within Uber's orbit that are not necessarily its fault.

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