What’s Really Wrong With Uber?

Maybe the company’s not evil, just inept. 

Uber PR fail
Somewhere within Uber’s corporate halls, its communications team is slamming their heads against the wall.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock and Getty Images.

Uber’s list of missteps keeps getting longer. In the past week alone, a senior Uber executive set off a firestorm in the press after he allegedly suggested hiring opposition researchers to dig up dirt on journalists, and the company’s top New York official came under investigation for violating a reporter’s data privacy. As if that weren’t enough, BuzzFeed, which has been on quite a roll with its Uber scoops, obtained an internal recruiting document that outlined Uber’s plan to hire a “director of research and rapid response” who would, among other things, “identify and weaponize the facts” about taxi industry incumbents.

Somewhere within Uber’s corporate halls, its communications team is slamming their heads against the wall. The latest blunders have strengthened claims that Uber is sexist, immature, and creepy. Strangely, they’ve also come at a time when Uber was starting to seem genuinely interested in changing its image. In recent weeks, Uber has organized a series of off-the-record meetings and dinners to court the press and promote a softer, friendlier image. Those efforts blew up in its face when one of the dinners in New York produced senior vice president Emil Michael’s “oppo research” comment; Uber, as SFGate quipped, “forgot the charm, but not the offensive.” What’s causing all of these screwups?

Even by Silicon Valley standards, Uber has grown at a blistering pace. In November 2010, Uber was operating in three cities—San Francisco, Palo Alto, and New York. By June 2013, that number was pushing up on 40, and Uber had expanded overseas. At last count, Uber has operations in 229 cities and just rolled out in its 50th country.

Now compare that to how Uber has grown its communications team. In June 2013, Uber hired Andrew Noyes from Facebook and Nairi Tashjian Hourdajian, a former policy director for the Democratic senatorial campaign committee, as the first in-house members of its PR division. Over the next year—as it was adding 100-plus cities to its roster—Uber brought a few more people into the operation. Susanne Elias-Stulemeijer, Uber’s communications person for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, joined in October 2013. Natalia Montalvo, senior communications associate for the Americas, started in January 2014. Two months later, Lane Kasselman, head of communications for the Americas, came on board.

By early 2014, these five communications managers were overseeing an ever-growing pile of lawsuits, regulatory threats, and scrutinizing press coverage. On top of that, the small corporate PR team was thrown into a sprawling, decentralized network of cities. To facilitate its whirlwind growth, Uber has allowed each city to be headed up by a general manager and the team he or she builds. For the most part, Uber’s general managers have been autonomous. Cities did not have their own PR people, and managers got used to doing things how they wanted, when they wanted. A former Uber employee told me that while the company’s decentralized structure has allowed it to scale nimbly, it’s also had a negative impact on corporate identity and branding. A handful of managers, the employee added, were known for acting before thinking in ways that resulted in public missteps.

Take Uber Albuquerque. Last month, it came out that Uber had deactivated one of its UberX drivers there for tweeting a link to a Pando Daily article that criticized the company. The driver posted his tweet in late August, but on Oct. 16 was notified by John Hamby, an Uber operations manager for the Phoenix area, that his Uber account had been “permanently deactivated” for “hateful statements regarding Uber through Social Media.” Outrage flared. Criticizing Uber, the media quickly declared, could get you fired from Uber. When the company’s PR team finally got in touch, they had a different explanation: “This was an error by the local team and the driver’s account should never have been deactivated.” It was, in short, not a corporate Uber policy that got the driver fired, but the whims of one local team.

Earlier this year, a seemingly similar issue occurred in San Diego. When Valentine’s Day rolled around, Uber blasted out this text message to drivers in the area: “UberX is very close to SURGE. It’s Valentine’s Day! People will be out all night and we didn’t activate new drivers to make earnings even higher this weekend.” Translation: We’re keeping drivers off the road to keep supply low, so that prices soar even higher during peak hours. This of course upset Uber users, who viewed it as an unfair means of inflating their fares. Notably, though, the problem wasn’t reported in any other city—it seemed isolated to San Diego. That doesn’t mean the national press saw it that way: “The text message seems to confirm the conspiracy theory that Uber manipulates surge pricing to take advantage of customers,” Business Insider declared. Noyes told the press the message was a misunderstanding, but it seems quite possible he was covering for a local team’s misstep.

If one Uber general manager has caused the communications team more headaches than any other, it’s New York’s Josh Mohrer. An early-ish Uber member, Mohrer joined the team in January 2012 from a marketing gig at Lot18. Mohrer was implicated in a scandal this past January in which Uber employees ordered and canceled at least 100 rides from competitor Gett. Noyes described the incident as “likely too aggressive a sales tactic”; Gett likened it to a denial of service attack. A few months later, it happened again—another car service competitor, Lyft, said Uber contractors had ordered and canceled thousands of its rides in New York over the course of a month. Leaked internal documents showed that Uber’s New York team even had a formal name for this project: Operation SLOG.

On Twitter, Mohrer can be aggressive and impulsive. In April, he was caught tweeting an attack on a woman after she complained about being kicked out of a cab so that her driver could take an Uber passenger instead. He is also fond of making disparaging comments to reporters and writing off critical media coverage as “fiction.” In this way, Mohrer is not so different from that of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, who has also been known to take his fights and media disputes to Twitter. (For instance: After I wrote an article questioning Uber’s claim about what its drivers make in New York City, Mohrer and Andrew Salzberg, an operations manager, launched a vehement Twitter campaign to discredit my reporting. But no one from Uber has ever asked me for a correction.)

For whatever reason, Mohrer has evidently been given—and grown accustomed to having—an extremely long leash. When I met him at a coffee shop near Uber’s New York headquarters in Long Island City a few weeks ago, he told me I should always bring my questions to him, and not bother speaking to the PR team. “They don’t like it,” he said, “but I’m just going to be much more direct.”

It’s possible that Uber has overlooked Mohrer’s past outbursts because, at the end of the day, he has built a tremendous New York business. According to documents obtained by Business Insider, New York City is Uber’s largest market, generating $26 million in revenue in December 2013 alone. During that same period, New York had the most weekly active Uber drivers and by far the highest percentage of weekly surges. It’s also possible that he’s protected by the boss. A source close to the company told me that Mohrer is in Kalanick’s inner circle.

Mohrer’s latest missteps, though, may finally have gone too far. Earlier this week, BuzzFeed’s Johana Bhuiyan described how once, on arriving for an interview with Mohrer, she found him waiting at her drop-off point. “There you are,” he told her, “I was tracking you.” Two months before that, Mohrer accessed logs of her Uber trips without asking her permission. To make matters worse, several hours before that report was published, Mohrer was caught apparently making light of the “oppo research” matter on Twitter. “Shake it off @Uber_NYC style. #HatersGonnaHate,” he posted, with a photo of the New York office mid-dance. The tweet was taken down that same day. Mohrer did not respond to several emails that I sent him for this story; Uber’s PR team declined to comment.

There’s no doubt that Uber is a controversial company. It barges into cities and countries without regard to regulators, employs the ever-unpopular surge pricing, and makes questionable claims about how great of a “small business” opportunity working for its service really is. But it’s worth considering that at least some of the controversies and scandals dogging Uber might not be company-wide failings, but rather the product of breakneck growth and rash local managers. Kalanick admitted as much in his keynote at a Goldman Sachs technology conference on Wednesday, saying of the company’s enormous growth, “When you push that hard, you have to be very, very precise … but you also have to teach a lot of people … what Uber is and how to communicate that.”

The local-level blunders are emblematic of larger issues at Uber. The company is widely thought to have an aggressive “bro culture” that starts at the top with Kalanick. It’s likely that attitude that has led people within the company to make casual comments about “oppo research,” and turn an otherwise innocuous job posting for a research director into a pseudo-scandal by using phrases like “weaponize the facts” where other, less heated descriptions would do just as well. Multiple people have called for Uber to grow up.

It seems like the company is trying. In mid-August, Uber announced that it had hired David Plouffe, the former Obama campaign manager and political strategist, to guide “Uber the candidate” as senior vice president for policy and strategy. Noyes resigned from his role as head of corporate communications in late April, but since then Uber has added at least 11 people to that team, and more than a dozen communications openings are posted on its jobs board.* This week, Kalanick also took to Twitter to issue an apology-of-sorts. He decried Emil Michael’s “oppo research” remarks for a “lack of humanity,” and emphasized the need to demonstrate the “positive principles” at the “core” of Uber’s culture. Kalanick promised to do everything in his power to earn trust from Uber’s drivers and users, but so far has stopped short of firing Michael.

“From a PR perspective they know that it’s great to use words like principles and humanity, but I don’t know that that’s actually been internalized by the organizational leadership,” says Dave Mayer, a management professor and ethics expert at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. “If you come up with a value statement, a mission statement for your company, and you really think it’s important, then I don’t think you end up using the word ‘weaponize’ or making a misogynistic statement because it wouldn’t fit into your value system. Without that, it’s going to be really hard to control those off-the-cuff comments.”

Uber’s PR and management issues are very much related. Because Uber has prioritized growth, it keeps adding new cities and new local managers. Until now, it has not added new communications people at anywhere near the same pace. The consequence is that some cities have wound up empowering impulsive actors, with almost no one to keep them in check. So maybe Uber’s problem is not with privacy, or price surging manipulation, or “corporate evil,” or any of the other claims that have been brought against it. Maybe Uber is suffering first and foremost from an immature culture, a handful of rash city managers, and a communications team ill-equipped to deal with them. As the saying goes, never attribute malice to that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

Correction, Nov. 24, 2014: This article originally misstated that Andrew Noyes resigned as Uber’s communications head in late April. He was Uber’s head of corporate communications, which is not the head of all its communications. (Return.)