Good and Bad PR
International taxi-booking service Uber has been banned in Delhi following a statement by a woman passenger who said she was raped by one of their drivers. This incident takes place just a week before the anniversary of the horrific gang rape and murder of a student on a bus in Delhi in 2012.
Uber in the past has faced criticism over its payment system in India which did not follow the 2-step authentication system that is standard policy for online payment, and now it faces a huge PR crisis. The current social media environment in India has made crime against women, especially urban women, a zero tolerance zone and any brand which doesn’t do enough to address this will find it tough going. Uber is already facing bans in Thailand, Spain, Portland as well as 4 other states in India.
Vipul Bondal, founder & CEO, Veriitte Consulting, rightly points out that, " Any crisis isn't local or national any longer. A single incident can have a cascading effect across countries."
Seasoned PR professional, Raju Kane, says that, "As someone who has spent over three decades in media, PR and corp comm I have been wondering how I would have handled the recent Uber nightmare. There are of course a million things they done wrong; including, incredibly, offering financial assistance to the survivor. But I think the fundamental problem is with their positioning. Companies like Über, Ola etc. are aggregators, they are not full service taxi companies like Meru or Mega. An aggregator offers convenience and most probably a cheaper rate – exactly what Über does. It cannot and should not offer things it can't control."
Adds Raju, “To give you an example, ‘makemytrip’ offers the convenience of booking a flight from your laptop or smartphone. It does not guarantee that the flight will take off on time or say that it will not crash. In fact it has a specific disclaimer to that effect. You book your tickets or hotels and take your chances. If there is problem, one never blames ‘makemytrip’, we blame the airline or the hotel. This is because everyone is very clear what ‘makemytrip's’ role is. If Uber had promised the same, and nothing more, they wouldn't have faced the current problems. Also it is quite possible that the survivor would have taken greater precautions, as she would have if she was hailing a regular cab at night in Delhi – most probably have a friend or two accompany her, thereby possibly preventing the crime."
Raju concludes by saying that, "Uber's problem is they positioned themselves wrongly and the survivor's trauma is caused by the fact that she like millions of others believed this wrong positioning. To me it is a classic case of bad communication that is of course going to cost über badly, but, much worse, has also caused terrible suffering and trauma to the young lady. A sad lesson for all communication professionals!"
The police say that not only was the accused driver (who has since been arrested) not verified and had been arrested for rape earlier, the GPS tracker which is touted as a safety precaution was switched off in the car.
Before the service was banned in Delhi, the company's CEO Travis Kalanick issued this statement:
"What happened over the weekend in New Delhi is horrific. Our entire team's hearts go out to the victim of this despicable crime. We will do everything, I repeat, everything to help bring this perpetrator to justice and to support the victim and her family in her recovery.”
“We will work with the government to establish clear background checks currently absent in their commercial transportation licensing programs. We will also partner closely with the groups who are leading the way on women's safety here in New Delhi and around the country and invest in technology advances to help make New Delhi a safer city for women."
Uber could face a civil liability case in India as well because agreeing to a service’s terms and conditions does not safeguard the organisation during a criminal suit.
Globally, Uber already faces considerable criticism over allegations of filming passengers secretly and not doing enough to screen out drivers with a criminal record as well as threats to hound reporters. Uber will have to come up with a sustained, credible effort to demonstrate that it cares for passenger safety.