Sitting in London at the annual conference of the PRCA this morning, we were hearing some of the PR industry’s leading lights share interesting thoughts on the current PR challenges that businesses face in today’s ‘turbulent times’. And, right on cue, news broke that ride-hailing giant Uber will not have its licence renewed in London because Transport for London has judged the business is not ‘fit and proper’ to hold a private hire operator licence. This is hard to top as an illustration of the strategic business importance of corporate reputation.
TfL’s decision apparently relates to public safety concerns, such as Uber’s approach to carrying out background checks on drivers and reporting serious criminal offences. However, it is hard not to feel these issues are linked to the wider cultural malaise that has beset the company in its short history.
Uber has been through a very torrid time in the past 12 months over the allegedly ‘toxic’ corporate culture under founder CEO Travis Kalanick. Sexual harassment cases, arguments over the rights and treatment of drivers and a confrontational approach to autonomous vehicle testing were among the issues that have dogged the company. All this culminated in the recent appointment of his successor Dara Khosrowshahi, who now has a new top priority in appealing the TfL decision. His success or failure will be vital not only for Uber’s business in London, but its entire business, as London’s actions will be closely watched and potentially followed by other major cities around the world.
Uber’s recent history reveals several things about PR and corporate reputation. Firstly, you can’t keep the bad conduct of an organisation from leaking out: social media ensures that every organisation is porous, and that reported misdeeds can be shared widely in the blink of an eye. Secondly, that today’s consumers increasingly want to feel ethically comfortable with the organisation they buy from – witness the Uber-boycotts that have benefited rivals such as Lyft and conventional cab businesses. And, thirdly, that regulators are aware of both of the former points and see their role, in part, as upholding the standards of corporate responsibility that the general public expects.
For every business that still feels that corporate communications is merely about ‘presenting’ decisions taken elsewhere, Uber’s fate in London reveals the truth. Communications isn’t just about saying the right thing, it’s about doing the right thing. If a business conducts itself without listening to and having a clear understanding of its customers’ ethical as well as commercial expectations, judgement can be swift and brutal.