Hell of a ride: even a PR powerhouse couldn’t get Uber on track

Despite her formidable reputation, Rachel Whetstone who departed Uber this week wasnt be permitted to switching the companys fundamental problems

When Rachel Whetstone left Google two years ago to supplant David Plouffe, a former Barack Obama official, as policy and communications vice-president at Uber, it seemed like a promising Silicon Valley role.

The taxi-hailing app had a reputation for aggressive and even underhanded tactics, and a CEO, in Travis Kalanick, with a reputation as a gaffe-prone tech bro, but it was one of the fastest growing startups in the world, reached a $50 bn valuation( now almost $70 bn) within merely six years.

However Whetstone departed the company this week amid a stunning array of scandals and disagreements, including allegations of sexual harassment, a video of Kalanick berating an Uber motorist, a legal battle with Google over the alleged theft of driverless automobile technology, the revelation that Uber employed secret Greyball software to fool metropoli regulators, and allegations that the company had another program called Hell to take in order to spy on its arch-rival Lyft.

For Whetstone its been a hell of a journey. Public relations veteran Ed Zitron described Whetstones job as the equivalent of having two fists permanently punching you in the head.

And thats simply in the last four months.

Earlier in her tenure at Uber, Whetstone, who has a formidable reputation in both Silicon Valley and Westminster, dealt with a major class action suit over Uber drivers employment status and a dustup over autonomous vehicle permits in San Francisco, where the company rejects to take its self-driving vehicles off the roads, even after they were caught moving red lights.

Zitron, the founder of a PR firm specializing in tech, used to say Whetstones successes and failures in managing Ubers reputation are particularly beside the point, because she could not change the brutal actuality of the companys fundamental problems.

If she was a Time Lord, maybe. If she could actually fix the fabric of actuality, maybe, he mentioned. But when you have a video of your CEO in a automobile doing a live stage play of Atlas Shrugged, what are you meant to do there?

Its an open secret that Travis doesnt listen to anyone, mentioned a senior communications advisor in the Bay Area familiar with the matter. The supposition is that its so male heavy and toxic at management degrees that even someone like[ Whetstone] … is exhausted by the machismo.

Whetstones exit is just the latest in a string of several senior departures from the embattled company in recent weeks which include Ubers second in command Jeff Jones, who left the company over what he described as disagreements with leadership.

But Whetstones job was arguably the most challenging of them all: public relations and policy for one of “the worlds largest” scandal-hit companies in America.

I think basically you have a Donald Trump-like situation at Uber, mentioned crisis management expert Jonathan Bernstein. It doesnt matter what his communicators reply, ultimately its about what Travis Kalanick tells. Its like the problem Sean Spicer has no matter how much he tries to spin, his boss is going to say something on Twitter he doesnt know about and he aims up looks a lot like an idiot.

Whetstones departure this week was speedily overshadowed by yet another polemic: the revelations about its secret program known internally as Hell, which was allegedly used to spy on its primary rival Lyft.

According to tech website The Information, Uber developed fake Lyft customer reports to surveil its drivers, tracking their behavior, identifying them, and figuring out who the hell is driving for both apps. Then, tweaks in the Ubers algorithm would reportedly mail more fares to drivers using both platforms.

Hell is just one of the tricks Uber allegedly used to defeat its challengers: it was previously reported that the company had engaged in concerted efforts to request and cancel thousands of Lyft goes. Uber called the allegations baseless and simply untrue and instead accused Lyft of taking part in the behavior.

Uber declined to provide the Guardian a comment about the allegations. However in a comment to the Information, a company spokesman denied that the app imparted preference to drivers using both Uber and Lyft.

Robin Feldman, the director of the UC Hastings Institute for Innovation Law, said the program raises questions over whether Uber was engaging in anti-competitive demeanor, but delivering an antitrust example would be very difficult.

Still, she added: Even if it is legal, at the end of the day, it may merely was all right karma.

If Uber was engaged in the systematic, long-term tracking of Lyft drivers, this raises serious privacy pertains, mentioned Jamie Lee Williams, a staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Knowledge about your physical locating over time is very sensitive. This doesnt change merely because you may be working.

The fallout over Hell is likely to be less consequential, nonetheless, than the high stakes court battle with Google. Ubers current head of self-driving vehicles, Anthony Levandowski, is invoking his right not to self-incriminate after his former employer, Google, accused him of stealing 14,000 secret reports about Lidar technology and taking them with him to Uber.

Travis Kalanick and Anthony Levandowski at Uber headquarters in August, 2016. Google is accusing Levandowski of stealing trade secret and taking them to Uber. Photo: Tony Avelar/ AP

On 3 May, Uber will attempt to persuade a federal magistrate not to grant a request from Googles self-driving outgrowth, Waymo, for an injunction against Ubers self-driving program. For a company that operates at a loss, and whose future is staked on eliminating the cost of taxi drivers with autonomous vehicles, the court case poses a potentially existential threat.

Its sufficient to make even “the worlds largest” seasoned PR professional want to invest some more time with their own families.

Uber supplanted Whetstone with an internal candidate, her deputy Jill Hazelbaker. Recruiting externally is likely to be more challenging for Uber at this time, mentioned Silicon Valley recruiter Mark Dinan.

Read more: http :// www.theguardian.com/ us

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