How to tackle the PR challenge facing Uber's Kalanick

Matt Phillips
Source: Getty

Former Uber chief executive, Travis Kalanick, has hired reputation management firm Teneo BlueRubicon to “refresh his tarnished image”, according to reports.

Whether it’s real news or fake news, it makes the news because Kalanick is news. And because an executive’s personal brand drives the reputation of the firm. Brand Kalanick is a problem for both.

Despite Uber delivering undoubted value for the urban consumer, rightly or wrongly, the consensus is that the gig economy mostly transfers value from the many workers who supply the service to the few entrepreneurs that built the platform.

This, coupled with his confrontational leadership style and the culture of endemic sexism within Uber, means Kalanick has the media’s attention for the wrong reasons. In that context, there are several major challenges I see facing Brand Kalanick.

Read more: Former Uber boss Travis Kalanick just wants to be loved

Start the next chapter, but first close the old one

We advise clients to use one of seven classic storytelling types to describe their own stories: both the story of the company itself and that of the individual. Stories of business founders are by nature naturally aligned to that of the business. Told well, they’re a powerful way to build the brand. But equally individuals can toxify a brand.

Uber’s story is largely positive in the eyes of its users. A story of “Overcoming the Monster”, in which a hero saves the passenger from the tyranny of overpriced cabs.

Behind that sits Uber’s business narrative of “The Quest” – a mission to reinvent transportation. But while Kalanick’s personal brand remains tethered to Uber, he doesn’t benefit from its consumer halo – he’s cast as the villain in the Uber story. For a story to change, one chapter needs to end and a new one needs to begin.

No reputation is unrepairable

A powerful PR firm can use its influence and relationships to dampen negative news. But while a change to a more measured tone or PR rebrand is essential, no agency can repair a reputation without new facts.

It’s easy to develop a siege mentality and get the feeling that the media has made its mind up, and will distort the facts to fit the story their audience want to hear. I don’t buy this. Investigative journalists may work to an editorial agenda but I think most journalists just want to find interesting stories.

The onus is on the brand to make it easy for the media to see the new positive story as more compelling than the old negative one.

Kalanick needs to prove the positive value that he creates, in the real world. Hire real people. Treat them well. Create new economic and social value without demolishing others.

Be prepared for a negative reception at first

Journalists pick up the stories where they left off. And even after Kalanick’s Uber chapter ends he will be asked about it.

The key is finding ways to use that interest to pivot into your new story: media training will test whether that new story will pass the credibility test.

Some journalists might look for (sometimes flimsy) reasons to keep a negative story rumbling on, but facts speak the loudest, and the onus is on the brand to find new facts to move the story on.

Kalanick is undoubtedly a technology visionary with the talent and influence to change people’s lives for the better – most people will give him the benefit of the doubt if he channels his talent into something positive.

The job of PR is to help him surface a new positive story and move on from the past. Just don’t expect PR to fix a reality crisis.

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