Uber Overboard, Underhanded In Its Marketing?

ubersea Uber Overboard, Underhanded In Its Marketing?

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for ride-request app Uber in Seattle.

Uber has upended the car-for-hire and ridesharing business with its location-aware ride-requesting app and cashless transactions. Naturally, some people have a problem with this – among them, the owners of traditional taxi companies, and government officials seeking to regulate a brand new category of transportation business.

Bogged down by business and bureaucratic traffic, Uber has managed to keep the wheels rolling, sometimes by racing red lights. At a current crossroads in Seattle, the company has mounted an Astroturf campaign – that is, a fake grass-roots effort – to lobby the City Council against curtailing its business. A “Save Uber in Seattle” effort features a company-sponsored petition website (with a non-profit conjuring .org domain), robo-calls from the local general manager, roving billboard trucks and a citywide blanket of (apparently illegal) posters.

This being Seattle, not everyone is down with a guerilla marketing effort masquerading as a popular groundswell, no matter how hip the company is. Sure, Uber may have Macklemore on its side, but recorded calls offering to forward you directly to the mayor’s office are perhaps a tad too proactive for such a laid back city, and residents are tweeting their disdain. Uber might reach its destination, but how many ride-needy Seattleites will it turn off along the route?

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for Uber’s slightly sneaky Seattle marketing strategy.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Handle trendiness with care. A marketing effort that is too clever by half can stir up bad PR, not to mention bad blood. In a place like Seattle, where residents have finely calibrated B.S. detectors, Uber’s effort might backfire for being impersonal, duplicitous and cynical, not to mention visually polluting and slightly illegal. A more solicitous and sincere overture to its local fans might have been a safer, more direct route.

Internet Mogul Is a Media Mess

seanparker Internet Mogul Is a Media Mess

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for internet mogul Sean Parker.

Sean Parker, co-founder of the groundbreaking music sharing service Napster and first president of Facebook, is by many accounts a nice guy who these days is famous mostly for being really rich – and for earning bad press that gets worse when he tries to fix it.

You might recall Parker’s over-the-top, fairy tale-themed wedding in Big Sur last year that turned into a nightmare for him, and then some. Parker dug a deeper hole for himself by talking too much, authoring a 10,000-word defense that was as unintentionally hilarious as it was out of all proportion to the story.

Jump to last week and across the country to New York, where Parker’s snowbound Greenwich Village neighbors complained that the internet billionaire had the street torn up to have high speed fiber-optic communications installed in his $20 million pied-a-terre. Parker responded personally to the report, conciliatorily at first. But then came another story , another response, and another story. In the run-up, Parker got angrier and angrier, finally raising the true white flag of public press feuds – he called his critics Nazis.

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for Sean Parker and his lack of restraint. His publicist must be both stressed and lonely.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Know when to fold. Parker’s overzealous pursuit of redemption through the press accomplishes just the opposite, sustaining the story and making him look guilty as well as petty. Back in the day, the popular caution was “Don’t pick fights with people who buy ink by the barrel.” Now, with worldwide bandwidth mere keystrokes away, it’s all the more critical that you learn to grin and bear it. If you’re famous, accept that you will sometimes get bad press. Respond if you must, but in a manner that ends the conversation. And leave the job to your publicist so you remain above the fray.

AOL CEO’s Remarks on Benefits a Detriment

tim armstrong aol AOL CEOs Remarks on Benefits a Detriment

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for AOL CEO Tim Armstrong.

AOL CEO Tim Armstrong is back with another PR blunder that contributed to, if not prompted outright, an embarrassing corporate about-face. His latest gaffe came last week after AOL made a change to its 401(k) matching policy for employees, revealing that it would only match employee contributions at year’s end instead of throughout the year, and only for employees who are “active” through December 31.

Bad enough to adopt a miserly policy that robs employees of potential stock market gains in their retirement portfolio, but Armstrong added to the firestorm by blaming the change on Obamacare and on two “distressed” pregnancies that cost the company $1 million each in healthcare expenses. “We had to decide, do we pass the $7.1 million of Obamacare costs to our employees? Or do we try to eat as much of that as possible and cut other benefits?” Armstrong said, digging a deeper hole by going on to discuss the expensive pregnancies.

Too bad for Armstrong that AOL announced, at virtually the same time, a 13 percent increase in quarterly revenues, its best growth in a decade. The next day, he announced that AOL would reverse its 401k decision and apologized for singling out the two new mothers, but not before one observer recalculated his salary in terms of distressed babies per year.

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for Tim Armstrong and AOL for bad timing, bad policy, and bad employee relations.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Avoid scapegoating. Armstrong, like so many other CEOs, looked stingy in blaming Obamacare for forcing cuts elsewhere  – especially with AOL’s simultaneous rosy earnings announcement. (Is anyone managing communications flow at the company?) He doubled down by essentially blaming two specific employees for having the audacity to need expensive health care – pregnant women at that. Why not blame black rhinos for being hunted to near-extinction for their careless habit of having horns that poachers will kill for?

SF Mayor Revises Facts to Fit Friends

edlee SF Mayor Revises Facts to Fit Friends

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee.

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee is trying to broker peace in his city between the haves and the have-mores – that is, between the middle class and the Next Notch Up. Many of the latter group hail from the tech industry, whose financial and political support helped Lee win office in 2011. Judging from recent published remarks, the mayor might need to recalibrate his socioeconomic bearings to keep his impartial referee’s cap.

Interviewed in Time on how tech wealth has fueled divisions and resentments among residents, Lee conceded that his city might have “missed some steps” in tending to its middle class – and then made a misstep of his own. “We might have a broader range of defining the middle class,” Lee told Time. “I’m talking maybe $80,000 to $150,000.”

That range, as it turns out, is wildly off. As local news outlets reported, census data list median salary in the city at $74,000 as recently as 2012. (It’s about $61,000 for California and $53,000 for the nation.) Upwardly revising the number also rebrands the middle class to embrace the tech block to whom Lee is beholden. Et voila! What middle-class exodus? What’s more, our six-figure friends need government help!

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, for floating a tone-deaf talking point seemingly crafted by a tech sector lobbyist.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Build a ring-fence around your credibility. This is especially true for would-be mediators. The middle ground is the hardest to defend and the slightest tip of the scales one way or the other compromises one’s impartiality and hence effectiveness at bridging gaps. Lee’s infraction of this rule is seemingly minor, but San Francisco is tightly bound, constrained geographically (by water) and politically (by tradition). Like the city’s endemic earthquakes, even small political ripples can do damage and escalate rapidly to major catastrophe. Keep your friends close, indeed – but your facts closer.

Obama’s Proposed NSA Reforms Fall Flat

 

 Obamas Proposed NSA Reforms Fall Flat

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for President Obama for his NSA speech.

Bold change seldom comes from modest action; just ask President Barack Obama. The proposed reforms he announced last week for how the National Security Agency goes about collecting data are hardly the stuff of decisive, game-changing leadership. But that was probably never the Administration’s intent.

Granted, fixing the White House’s PR mess over citizen eavesdropping is a tall order. The President’s speech in the Great Hall of the Justice Department follows months of the dripping faucet of leaks from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, not to mention a particularly bad month for the intelligence community in general, with a critical judicial ruling and a tough review from a White House-appointed panel. In announcing the modest reforms, Obama spent a good portion of time defending the NSA’s most controversial programs as necessary measures in the ongoing battle against terrorists.

What irony, then, that Obama’s speech came on the same day another US President, Dwight Eisenhower, warned Americans about the “military-industrial complex” that threatened American democracy from within. “The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist,” Eisenhower said back in 1961. “We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes.” Against that standard, the verdict for Obama’s effort suffers.

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for President Obama, who tried to walk the middle road, to no one’s benefit.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Be mindful of history. Obama might not have channelled Eisenhower specifically, but he could have relied on more than modest reforms and a good speech to answer all the criticism over spying dropped on his doorstep. He surprised and satisfied no one with his tepid response to spying – not Congress, not tech companies who were obliging or grudging accomplices, not the American public. Pleasing no one with a middle-of the-road approach might be a somewhat effective strategy for governing, but not so much for PR.

Google’s Ferry Service Misses the Boat

ssgoog Googles Ferry Service Misses the Boat

THE PR VERDICT: “C” (Distinctly OK) for Google.

First by land, now by sea? Google, trying to get its San Francisco employees to and from work through the car-choked Silicon Valley corridor without aggravating the local gentry in the process, now has a private ferry to go with the buses that piggyback on city bus routes, clog streets, and generally irritate residents who don’t happen to work at Google. So how was the seemingly civic- and green-minded move greeted locally? More catcalls.

The buses, among others used by tech firms including Apple, Facebook, and Yahoo, use city bus stops to take on and discharge passengers. Their “unlawful” use of city infrastructure, coupled with rising disdain for tech’s rampant hegemony over city life, drew a raucous protest last month when protesters blocked a Google bus and smashed a window. Last week, the city proposed a $1-per-stop tax on each bus, expected to cost each company about $100,000 annually – a fee that critics derided as, well, mere bus fare.

Enter the gleaming, Wi-Fi-equipped, hydrofoil-assisted catamaran Google has hired for a 30-day trial run. The company said it hoped the move would help spare residents inconvenience. Inconvenience perhaps, but not ire. Nothing like the sight of techies zipping by on a flashy boat that used to take kids out for whale-watching tours to bridge the cultural and socioeconomic divide. Think of the children!

THE PR VERDICT: “C” (Distinctly OK) for Google, for a yeoman’s effort that slightly missed the boat.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Look past the problem. Sometimes the solution has nothing to do with it. The issue here for Google and others isn’t buses; it’s style and tone. If these firms put more effort, and money, into being good corporate citizens, there might be less of an uproar about whose bus stops where, and less of a sense that Googlers and their ilk seem to breathe better air than the rest of San Franciscans. All aboard now!

Samsung’s Embarrassing Moment at CES

 Samsungs Embarrassing Moment at CES

The PR Verdict: “D” (PR Problematic) for Michael Bay and Samsung.

Being a trend topic on Twitter is something most people would pay good ad dollars for, but action movie director Michael Bay would probably pay to get off the feed. Making the rounds of social media and the morning shows is a videotape from tech convention CES, the Consumer Electronics Show, where Bay took to the stage for a talk – and then walked.

Bay was set to unveil the new Samsung UHD television, one of the big presentations at CES. The director of such blockbusters as Armageddon, Pearl Harbor, and the Transformers series was introduced by Samsung Executive VP Joe Stinziano, and began, “My job, as a director, is I get to dream for a living…And what I try to do is…” He then faltered, saying the teleprompter was off, and promptly left the stage.

The spectacularly clumsy and uncomfortable few moments were, of course, captured as part of the conference, but could there have been a worse place than a gadgets convention for this to happen? Hundreds of phones recording it all, tweets sent immediately. A few rushed to Bay’s defense, but the mortification made the rounds by the time Bay posted a blog on his website. “Wow! I just embarrassed myself at CES…I guess live shows aren’t my thing.” For a blockbuster director, that’s rather understated.

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for director Michael Bay and Samsung, for an embarrassing show at CES.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Know thyself, and say no. If live shows aren’t your thing, don’t do them. What could Bay have netted from this appearance? Surely the money couldn’t come close to what he’s made on a single Transformers movie. If he owed Samsung in some way, best to make it up with an offstage endorsement. Public speaking need not be part of one’s package. Those who are not born showmen would be better off letting others do the talking, with or without a teleprompter.

No Apology for Snapchat Security Breach

snapchatspeigel No Apology for Snapchat Security Breach

The PR Verdict: “F” (Full Fiasco) for Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel.

Does being CEO and founder of the Internet’s overvalued social fad of the moment mean never having to say you’re sorry? Looks like CEO Evan Spiegel of Snapchat, the self-deleting photo-messaging app, thinks so.

Hackers celebrated New Year’s Day by publishing the user names and private phone numbers associated with 4.6 million Snapchat profiles. The breach occurred after the start-up, whose very appeal derives from its promise of privacy, seemingly ignored an outside security firm’s warning about a security hole. Citing Snapchat’s months-long lack of action, the firm made the warning public on Christmas Eve.

It’s not the first time Snapchat and its founder have been called out for hubris, but this one could really cost. In the days after the breach, security experts lined up to predict class-action lawsuits and regulatory investigations. As for Spiegel,  he declined to offer any kind of apology or mea culpa, telling an interviewer that in a fast-moving business like his, “If you spend your time looking backwards, you’re just going to kill yourself.” An attitude like that could make Snapchat as short-lived as the photos its users share.

THE PR VERDICT: “F” (Full Fiasco) to Evan Spiegel, for a tone-deaf response to a crisis that only a company lawyer could love.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Own your mistakes. A 22-year-old CEO of a $2 billion company, for all his genius and entrepreneurial skill, probably doesn’t possess the maturity to get beyond the “It’s not my fault” mentality. But Spiegel’s non-apology almost certainly came on advice from nervous lawyers that he avoid admitting culpability. It showcases the dynamic tension that typically exists between corporate legal and PR teams, whose overlapping missions occasionally chafe. We’ll see if Snapchat remains as blasé when users fight back.

The PRV 2013 Final Grade: And the “F” Goes to…

Healthcare Exchanges The PRV 2013 Final Grade: And the F Goes to...THE PR VERDICT’S “F” (FULL FIASCO) grade goes to HealthCare.gov, the website hub for US citizens to sign up for government-supplied health insurance. A long hoped-for dream of affordable healthcare for Americans, and what Barack Obama surely thought would be his presidential legacy, has turned into what is generally described as a nightmare.

Getting the Affordable Health Care Act bill passed seemed the hard part. The next step was constructing a website that would be easy to navigate and able to handle an onslaught of Americans in need of insurance. But surely this would be a cinch for Microsoft or Apple or any of America’s tech giants. Maybe, if they’d gotten the contract, or even been consulted.

From the start, HealthCare.gov was a disaster. The site bounced users off, refused to save their data, or was impossible to log onto. Worse, the few who did manage to get on and didn’t want to change their plans suddenly found themselves without insurance. The President’s angry promises to get the site fixed were empty next to facts emerging from a commission (yes, things went that bad). Not enough testing, wrong mainframe, blah tech excuse blah. Only this week has Microsoft been called in, but help arrived too late to save this story.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Under-promise and over-deliver. It’s easy to see why President Obama would have wanted to offer affordable healthcare as soon as possible. Now, in hindsight, it’s easy to see why he should have waited. The achievement is one thing, implementation an entirely different animal. Whether looking at a presidential legacy or a small business breaking sales expectations with a big account, plan. Factor in worst-case scenarios. Hire the best consultants. When the back-slapping over a major win is done, take a hard look at what’s ahead to see that your promise doesn’t become an error fail.

Tech Titans Flex Anti-Surveillance Muscle With… a Website?

SurvReform Tech Titans Flex Anti Surveillance Muscle With... a Website?

The PR Verdict: “C” (Distinctly OK) for Big Tech’s anti-snooping website.

The tech sector’s biggest names – Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, Facebook, LinkedIn, and others – have taken a hit this year for their complicity with government surveillance programs. With each new creepy disclosure on the depth and scope of the spying, the tech firms have found more courage to fight back  for the freedom of the Internet and the privacy rights of their users. Hence this week we have their boldest move to date…um, a new website?

Well, a feckless-looking Silicon Valley had to do something. Eight firms with a combined value of $1.4 trillion have signed on to an effort to reform “global” government surveillance – though clearly the main bogey is the US. Taking the time-honored but largely symbolic tack of an “open letter to Washington,” the tech firms cite the “urgent need to reform government surveillance practices worldwide” and implore the US to take the lead. “For our part, we are focused on keeping users’ data secure,” they add. Not to mention their business models.

What’s missing? How about telecom companies, network equipment makers, financial interests like credit card companies? Again, it’s a start. As a skeptic notes, the effort is driven more by economic than good-government interest, as the firms continue to face backlash for cooperating with the surveillance effort in the first place.

THE PR VERDICT: “C” (Distinctly OK) for the tech sector backers of surveillance reform.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Give your cause higher purpose. You’ll win more friends, allies and better headlines. The Tech sector backers of the surveillance reform effort have a clear economic interest in protecting their users from prying government eyes. But “Don’t spy on our users – we might lose money” is hardly a rallying cry. Silicon Valley is imbued with a libertarian spirit that abhors government intrusion, if not always for the noblest reasons. Whether the website is just a PR move, or a lead-in to real political action backed by the sector’s considerable economic might, will be monitored closely. And not just by government snoops.