Scott Lyon explains why an Uber executive’s threat to dig up dirt on journalists was more than just an unfortunate remark.
Like many of you, I consider myself a happy end-user of Uber and have been truly impressed with the consistency and wide-range of innovations, from inventive delivery extensions to more recent Spotify integration. In fact, if pressed I probably would have said recently Uber was as close to an unstoppable force in our tech ecosystem as one can get.
But upon learning recently that their top Business Development executive recently floated the suggestion at a high profile dinner of press and so-called “influentials” that Uber could and should hire a team of opposition researchers to unearth “dirt” on selected journalists, and further could leverage their proprietary ride-tracking data to unearth embarrassing details, my jaw dropped. And as I have been following the ensuing backlash, on Twitter and elsewhere, I have realized that there are actually multiple waves of shock and awe here:
- This is NOT just a PR controversy. Uber has acknowledged its challenges in media relations, and in fact brought in a heavy hitter from the Obama camp (former campaign manager David Plouffe) to right the ship. I’m guessing this particular event was orchestrated as part of that new strategy. But to suggest that the “off the record” protocol of the event was under-clarified, or that the context of the evening in question was social and full of wine/women/song as Michael Wolff attempts to portray, is just asinine. It would be one thing if an Uber exec were to pop off an inflammatory or derogatory remark about an individual journalist, and later proclaim alcohol-impaired poor judgement as an excuse. But to boast at such a high-profile event (Arianna Huffington, Mort Zuckerman etc) about an insidious but all-too-credible threat to leverage proprietary corporate data against critics of the company, is far beyond the pale of normal corporate banter (and btw Wolff should know better than to suggest that a journalist should presume such an affair is off the record).
- This is NOT just a gender wars/culture clash flare-up. Yes Silicon Valley has been Exhibit A for imposing glass ceilings and a “bro-culture” frat boy mentality from places like Snapchat to Google. But here again this is not cultural or HR tone-deafness. To read the account of Sarah Lacy at Pando (the journalist in question referenced at the dinner) is to understand that this is part of a systematic and apparently sanctioned way of doing business at Uber which is cynical, manipulative, and increasingly hostile to female consumers, drivers, employees, etc.
- This is NOT just a data lapse or privacy breach story. Uber was not “hacked” like Target or your local bank. They weren’t even running rogue A/B tests based on your user data to in theory optimize the service, like Facebook or online dating sites have recently acknowledged. This is Google-level intent to be evil. It never even crossed my mind until just recently that Uber was recording where I drove, or when, and could somehow access that data in an unauthorized fashion.
I am confident Uber will continue to disrupt staid entrenched industries and delight users such as myself with increasing levels of innovation and customer service. But as Warren Buffett once famously said about Salomon Brothers (and business in general), if you don’t play tennis within the white lines eventually you will lose. As I mentioned on Twitter recently, it would be hard to concoct a scenario where Uber could “lose” but if they do not move quickly and in good faith to address these more systemic issues they risk undermining a potentially unicorn-level franchise.
Originally published on LinkedIn.