Uber does damage control amid firestorm, but is it enough?

After being called an "arrogant" and "jerkish" company that doesn't respect privacy, the ride-sharing service aims to show it's a "positive member of the community."

Dara Kerr Former senior reporter
Dara Kerr was a senior reporter for CNET covering the on-demand economy and tech culture. She grew up in Colorado, went to school in New York City and can never remember how to pronounce gif.
Dara Kerr
3 min read

After facing public scrutiny, Uber aims to regain the public's confidence. Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Image

As far as good weeks and bad weeks go, this one couldn't get much worse for Uber.

The ride-sharing service has felt the heat of worldwide attention since Monday, when news broke that executive Emil Michael said he would like to spend $1 million investigating journalists. The goal? To "dig up dirt on its critics in the media," according to BuzzFeed.

Since then, just about every major news outlet in the US has written articles, blogs and commentary exploring Uber's corporate culture, business practices and views on privacy.

The headlines are a PR person's nightmare. "Uber can no longer distinguish between being disruptive and being a jerk," suggested the Washington Post. "Arrogance in Uber's top ranks hurting company: Who's the boober now?," asked the Los Angeles Times. And "Uber, a Start-Up Going So Fast It Could Miss a Turn," wrote The New York Times.

And in the middle of it all, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) sent a letter to Uber CEO Travis Kalanick after news hit that the company's New York general manager tracked a BuzzFeed reporter without her knowledge.

Uber needs to do some serious damage control. But don't expect a mea culpa from the famously aggressive company. Uber is instead aiming to show it's a "positive member of the community," including "strengthening" its privacy practices, offering riders holiday deals and giving incentives to drivers.

Uber announced Thursday it is working with well-known data privacy expert Harriet Pearson and her law firm Hogan Lovells.

"The trip history of our riders is important information and we understand that we must treat it carefully and with respect, protecting it from unauthorized access," Uber spokeswoman Natalia Montalvo wrote in a blog post announcing the news.

Uber has tasked Pearson with reviewing its data privacy program and recommending changes.

Uber also sent out promotional emails to riders. One email asks riders to donate $10 to help feed the needy for Thanksgiving and, in return, Uber will give users a $10 voucher for a meal from its partner Munchery. Another email offers riders a 10 percent discount ride during the holidays.

Uber also reached out to drivers. Its new Momentum program launched this week, giving "exclusive" rewards to drivers, such as car maintenance discounts and health insurance recommendations. It's unclear if the promotions for riders and drivers were planned before the Uber controversy. The company didn't respond to repeated requests for comment.

The question now is: will these initiatives be enough to salvage Uber's reputation?

Uber isn't the only company that has had to contend with a firestorm created by the actions of its own executives.

In June, retailer American Apparel fired its founder, chairman and CEO Dov Charney after investigating a series of allegations of personal misconduct, including booking airline flights for his parents using company money; allowing the release of naked photos of a former employee who was suing him for sexual harassment; and lying on a disposition. Charney called those allegations "baseless." He was later rehired as a "strategic consultant" to the company.

It's unclear whether American Apparel has weathered the worst aspects of its CEO's extreme bad-boy behavior.

Jason Hanold, a managing partner of executive search firm Hanold Associates, said people tend to root for companies that make our lives easier, despite their leadership -- but only up to a point.

"Everything they do is sending a message about their own corporate culture and their own behavior tolerance," Hanold said. "Is there true learning? Is there a grounding and a humility that comes with that?"

Some critics questioned why Michael wasn't fired for his comments -- wondering if his sentiment reflects the company's corporate culture. Kalanick posted a series of tweets earlier this week apologizing for the comments and saying, "I believe that folks who make mistakes can learn from them," essentially saying Michael will stay on.

For Uber to clear its name, it needs to show it has learned from its missteps and is correcting them, Hanold said. Undoubtedly, Uber's board is evaluating the company's next moves.