By Matt Baxter
This month brought up an interesting PR situation for ridesharing company Uber. After a weekend of negative coverage resulting from an MIT report, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi took a swipe at MIT and pushed back with Uber’s own analysis of the data with the following tweet:
This type of issue is relatively common in the field of public relations (although not always to this extreme) and – when the occasion arises – it is important to offer sound counsel to your clients … preferably before they take to social media. Sometimes it is necessary to take a muted approach. In other situations, the best approach may be to make a “stand.”
The Nereus team decided to use this scenario as a mock case study and share how we would counsel a client in this situation.
Scenario (the oversimplified version)
Your client has just been hammered by data that challenges its business model. The story has been picked up and is running in nearly every news outlet. Unfortunately, the client’s counter argument isn’t seeing as much traffic.
Your client’s “persona” has been that of a scrappy disruptor who is recently seeing a public perception downturn due to some negative internal cultural issues.
The proverbial blood is in the water … and the sharks are circling.
Although the company has taken steps to address the negative internal issues, they haven’t adjusted their public persona and continue to share potentially combative responses.
Read on to hear what advice our team would provide.
I think picking a fight with a reputable institution like MIT is not a good path. It’s okay to be critical of data when there are legitimate gaps and issues with the research, but to casually fling an entire institute under the bus comes across as petty. I think they need to stay humble; they are far from out of the woods with their reputation and this is reminiscent of the previous CEO.
Stay in Your Lane
There is a difference between being scrappy and being abrasive. I would advise my client that the best way to change an image of being a bully is to stay calm, cool and collected. Fight fire – in this case, studies that change entire business models – by responding with pure facts of why the data is incorrect.
Put on Some Shades
I would have suggested a more artful back-hand such as “Glad to see MIT study’s author will be re-running their analysis after our chief economist pointed out the report’s fundamental errors.” It’s okay to be critical of the study – especially if you’re in the right – but stay positive and avoid pettiness. Leading with an insult does the company a disservice: It conjures up memories of the “old company” internal culture issues, takes away attention from the primary goal of discrediting the report, and makes the CEO appear petty.
While the brashness of the Tweet came across as “the old company,” I think disputing the study was the right thing to do (especially since it has been revised). A study that challenges your entire business model AND may not be 100% accurate needs to be addressed, especially while rebuilding your brand following a crisis-filled 2017 and a possible IPO in 2019.
But, I would counsel the client to take the high road in the future when faced with criticism, rather than resort to name-calling. Tactics like this will help them establish themselves as a brand committed to change and begin to put its issues in the rearview.
Ignore the Offramp
Given this client’s persona – and assuming they are not changing their tone – I would have encouraged that Tweet. This approach may not be right for a seasoned company, but for them it was. With the negative narrative being repeated and no pick-up of their counter points, they needed to break through to grab attention, reframe the narrative and own the news cycle. By making the story about MIT, and even about its “rudeness,” they succeeded.
Disruptors, by nature, don’t worry about detractors (whose opinions won’t change overnight) when their business model is challenged. Regardless, stay true to who you are; if you’re scrappy, be scrappy and honor you company’s persona.
Now it’s your turn; do you agree or disagree with any of our staff? What guidance would you give your client who was in a similar situation?
And remember, if you’re faced with a similar situation, Nereus will take the time to understand your needs and suggest communication strategies that are right for you and your company.