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Uber – PR case study: PR nightmare or PR genius?

People talk about Uber’s aggressive business practices. Their disruptive model and the way they work with drivers have always been controversial. But in Uber’s case, I suspect that headline grabbing actions were an important part of a deliberate and very effective way of building their brand by pushing the normal business boundaries.

Most Internet-based service companies have to advertise constantly to build their brand. How many times have you seen advertisements for Just Eat or Comparethemarket.com?

I don’t believe Uber paid much for advertising when it launched its ride-hailing business. They didn’t need to when a series of brushes with the law generated front page headlines.

Bad news, effective PR?

When Uber entered the UK the debate was how could Uber compete on a level playing field with London’s black taxi cabs?  We saw headlines like: “On London’s streets, black cabs and Uber fight for future.” This was from the New York Times in  July 2017. Then Uber’s licence was revoked by TfL. They were front page news again when they re-entered the London market.

More shock-horror stories follow: a legal battle with Google over driverless car technology, then there were concerns over drivers’ background checks. The Daily Mirror reported that “Uber paid no UK corporation tax despite £14 million jump in turnover”. More recently, maybe as Uber seeks to reform itself, the debate has been over workers’ rights and whether Uber’s drivers are the same as employees? The more controversial the story, the more it makes front page news.

Uber claimed that their ride-hailing business grew by word-of-mouth. Max Crowley of Uber Chicago was quoted as saying: “We’ve found that our growth is driven substantially by word-of-mouth. When someone sees the ease of use, the fact that they press a button on their phone and in under five minutes a car appears, they inevitably become a brand advocate.”

That may be so, but I suspect that Uber cynically took the view that, if you just want to get the message out there, there’s no such thing as “bad” publicity.  While some people may view Uber as a PR nightmare, I can’t help thinking they found a highly effective and low-cost way to tell the world what they offer. It could be PR genius, if you are not precious about social responsibilities and brushes with the law.

Ironically, Uber now spends billions on advertising its Uber Eats and Uber Rents services.