Leaders

‘Being Known Helps, What You’re Known For Matters’: Uber’s Comms Directors On Reputation, Authenticity & Saying Sorry

Future Women's Social Club was given a AAA pass into life at one of the world's biggest tech companies.

By Natalie Cornish

Leaders

Future Women's Social Club was given a AAA pass into life at one of the world's biggest tech companies.

By Natalie Cornish

Facebook’s behaviour might be making global headlines currently, but it wasn’t so long ago that accusations about Uber’s culture were dominating the front pages. Since then the ride sharing start-up has been on a mission to become more open, honest and authentic about how it does business.

Uber’s Matt Kallman, Head of Communications in San Francisco, and Michelle Wood, Director of Communications in Australia and New Zealand, sit at the frontline of the headlines. They’re responsible for driving Uber’s reputation forward and delivering its mission, encompassing internal and external communications, stakeholder relations and community engagement efforts.

“Uber is one of those brands that’s so synonymous with what it provides; everybody uses it, everybody has an interaction with it and everyone has an opinion. There’s something that makes me, personally, feel very responsible,” Michelle told Future Women’s Sydney Social Club last week.

Matt, who had just flown in from California, agreed: “Uber is a really fast-paced driven culture, really committed to the mission, really trying to expand these opportunities both for mobility and economic access, with doing so in a way that at our scale today on both sides, in terms of 100 million people use Uber and 4.5 million use Uber for work. You do have a responsibility.”

Here are their key takeaways from an insightful conversation on reputation and brand.

Michelle Wood, Director of Communications in Australia and New Zealand.

Matt: “Trust is critical. Everyone’s mum would always say, don’t get in a car with a stranger – that’s flown out the window a bit in our society. The ratings are a part of that, there’s that trust through the sharing economy or the gig economy, whatever you want to call it. Transportation is a very personal and intimate thing, so there’s a lot of trust that goes in to it. Drivers trust their riders will treat them with respect in their own cars, and passengers trust drivers will be respectful and get them there safely. That’s crucial to Uber.”

Michelle: “Being known helps, and what you’re known for matters. At Uber, if we are known for vetting our drivers and doing background checks, then we’ve got a competitive advantage over our competitors in the market. Uber is one of those brands that’s so synonymous with what it provides; everybody uses it, everybody has an interaction with it and everyone has an opinion. There’s something that makes me, personally, feel very responsible. You are part of something bigger and something big. That’s something we talk about internally as well. Uber is not just a word on a page; it’s an active eco-system of restaurants, of delivery drivers, of customers that use the product as well. All of that brings the brand to life, it’s more than just a brand logo.”

Matt: “There cannot be a difference, substantively, between your internal comms and your external comms [anymore]. In the past Silicon Valley companies could get away with having really private internal discussions with their employees. That’s just not really the case anymore, in the political environment and the social environment we have now. I also think the key tenant of internal comms is always authenticity, you never want to be marketing to your employees, selling them or spinning them. They want the truth; they want to know the decision making process, they want to know the good and the bad and the ugly. Increasingly, I think consumers are expecting the same thing, where they can tell they are being spun or marketed to. In a certain sense you want to be speaking to both audiences in the same way, which is authentically. Being clear about the decisions you’re making as a business, because you are a business, and not sort of whitewashing for either audience.

 

“I think if something bad happens, it’s better to be honest quickly than slowly. The truth will always come out, and it’s always better to rip the Band Aid off once and get it done.”

 

“The other thing we grapple with is we are a big brand. There is a temptation to either be pulled into, or get involved in, everything. Uber does touch a lot of people, a lot of social topics, a lot of political topics but as a company and as a brand, you have to say, ‘What actually makes sense for us? Does it actually matter to our constituents, to our employees, to our partners, to our customers or to our executive?’ Otherwise the temptation is Uber has to have an opinion on everything. Especially in the US where, in the political climate, there’s this trend towards looking to companies for moral leadership or leading on issues. So it’s a tough decision, but you have to step back and think what actually connects to us as a business or as a brand?

Michelle: “I’ve been at Uber for about 14 months. It’s a fairly different culture to other places I’ve worked in before. I think generally it’s young and full of a very confident culture of people who are very passionate about Uber. Normally in a workplace you’ll find somebody there and they don’t want to be there; there’s just no-one like that at Uber. They are there living and breathing this thing that they really believe in and that’s really contagious.

“There are two completely different ways of working at an organisation. One is, let’s get it all perfect and then launch. Uber is, we’ve got this great idea, let’s get in market, let’s work on it as we go and we will end up with this product that is world-leading and world first. So it creates this culture of energy in the place.”

Matt: “I think crisis management is pretty tactical. The first thing is get the facts. The best thing you can do, often, is to do nothing and really get the facts, especially if you’re new to a crises or it’s a new type of crisis for you, you can really over react and then create another crisis by doing something. It can feel like a lot, but you can also remember that 99% of the world is not in danger and it’ll be okay. Get the facts, triangulate the facts (don’t trust one person; you want three sources to actually make sure it’s true) and then just be honest.

“I think if something bad happens, it’s better to be honest quickly than slowly. The truth will always come out, and it’s always better to rip the Band Aid off once and get it done. If it’s something that is wrong, you’ve got to own it. The last super important thing is how are you going to fix it? If it’s a problem you should fix it before you do anything or else, that’s going to be the second crisis: you didn’t fix it.”

Michelle: “If there’s something that happens crisis-wise, I try to know what it is I don’t know. And I do think this is a good thing about Uber – it is also very experienced at dealing with a crisis and therefore good at saying the truth is going to come out. There’s no burying anything, there’s no point.

“At Uber we call it ‘bad facts’, sometimes you just can’t change the fact and it’s bad and you have to manage it, you have to be honest about it and you have to be accountable for it. I think most good comms or brands that recover from crisis do so because they say, ‘We were wrong, we did the wrong thing, we’re fixing it in these ways and we mean it and we’ll tell you how we did it in 12 months time’.”