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.

Dept. of Financial Services to Standard Chartered: “J’accuse!”

 Dept. of Financial Services to Standard Chartered: Jaccuse!

The PR Verdict: “C” (Distinctly OK) for New York’s Dept. of Financial Services. Great splash, but now what?

What’s the fastest way to generate a headline and claim your PR moment in the sun? How about a surprise PR missile in the middle of a sleepy summer? Announce to the media that colossal wrongdoing has been uncovered, and presto; you now have more publicity than TomKat’s divorce.

Top marks, then, to New York State’s Department of Financial Services (DFS), who late on Monday stunned the markets with an accusation that venerable British bank Standard Chartered was hiding some $250 billion worth of transactions with the Iranian government. Benjamin Lawsky, superintendent of the DFS, gave the media a summer gift by calling Standard Chartered a “rogue institution.” He said the firm “carefully planned its deception” of US authorities using “fraudulent” procedures and “forging business records” to stage a “staggering cover-up.” Markets were stunned. Shares in Standard Chartered fell more than 16 percent, and the bank’s executives – as well as other bigwig US regulators, were caught unaware by the revelations.

Eight long hours after the headlines had been screaming of criminal activity, Standard Chartered limped out with a statement. The firm rejected the accusations and said “well over 99.9 per cent” of Iranian transactions complied with US regulations. The sums of money were nothing like $250 billion, more like  $14 million, said one source, a result of  “small clerical errors,” nothing more.

The PR Verdict: “C” (Distinctly OK) for New York’s DFS. Great splash, but now what? Where is the chorus of other regulators outraged at this alleged wrongdoing?

The PR Takeaway: Be careful what you wish for. Great job in getting the headlines, but now comes the tough part! Despite the nicely packaged and damning sound bites, it could be lonely out there for NY’s accuser as UK politicians begin to comment that this issue seems more about undermining foreign banking firms than substantive wrongdoing. This story may no longer turn on straightforward “did they or didn’t they” facts, and instead become a wider issue regarding PR grandstanding and regulatory overreach. If that’s the case, the splashy headlines might have been better delayed until all the other regulators were in the pool.

UPDATE: OUCH! Since publication, Standard Chartered have now agreed to a puzzling $340 million penalty. Rather embarrassing for the bank that was so outraged over being publicly shamed for what it said was only $14 million dollars of faulty transactions.  Now the firm has agreed to pay $340 million in penalties… hmm… does this math add up?

Should the DFS have waited until they had backup, or were they right to go ahead and shout “J’accuse!”? Give us your PR Verdict!

Romney’s Offshore Accounts Wash Up Again

 Romneys Offshore Accounts Wash Up Again

The PR Verdict: “C” (Distinctly OK) for Mitt Romney.

Things are looking a little uncomfortable for Mitt Romney as chatter builds about his offshore tax dealings. Vanity Fair this month went into forensic details over Romney’s affairs, describing the “murky world of offshore finance, revealing loopholes that allow the very wealthy to skirt tax laws.”

While there is no smoking gun, it is clear that Romney’s financial advisers were disciples of tax minimization. Trouble is, no one likes to read about a presidential candidate with offshore accounts. As Newt Gingrich said repeatedly during his campaign, “I don’t know of any American president who has had a Swiss bank account.”

So far Team Romney has given a robust response: Romney’s affairs are in a blind trust and have been for some time. Romney is a smart businessman who doesn’t want to pay more tax than is necessary, but his team insists he pays the full whack of tax, according to U.S. rules, no matter where the assets are located. But is this enough to cut the chatter?

The PR Verdict: “C” (Distinctly OK) for Romney’s handling of the issue so far. But what is the unanswered question that won’t go away?

The PR Takeaway: If a story won’t die, listen carefully for the question that is going unanswered. In this case, Romney’s campaign has done an impressive job in batting back the questions–they have disclosed some (certainly not all) of his tax records and details about his tax bill and trusts. The nagging issue continues to be; why was the money sent  offshore in the first place? Until Team Romney comes up with a convincing soundbite (if there is one), they should keep including the issue in their presidential debate rehearsals.

What do you think about Mitt Romney’s offshore accounts? Give us your PR Verdict, below!