Uber, the $18.2bn (£11.6bn) startup jerking taxi drivers all over the world out of their regulated complacency, has been going on a charm offensive lately, trying to tone down the public persona of its combative and some-time sexist founder and chief exec Travis Kalanick.
Too bad, then, for its nascent PR efforts that Emil Michael, Uber’s senior vice president for business, has suggested spending ‘a million dollars’ hiring investigators who would go after critical journalists and dig up dirt on ‘your personal lives, your families’, remarks which were reported by Buzzfeed.
Michael specifically mentioned going after Sarah Lacy, the editor of Silicon Valley website PandoDaily, at the private dinner in New York on Monday night. Lacy wrote last month that she was deleting Uber from her phone after Buzzfeed reported a French branch appeared to be offering rides with female escorts.
Michael said women were more likely to get attacked by taxi drivers than Uber drivers and that Lacy should be held ‘personally responsible’ if any woman who copied her in deleting the app was then sexually assaulted.
Lacy was understandably shocked, writing that she felt a ‘chill’ run up her spine at the thought of potential threats to her children.
‘The remarks attributed to me at a private dinner – borne out of frustration during an informal debate over what I feel is sensationalistic media coverage of the company I am proud to work for – do not reflect my actual views and have no relation to the company’s views or approach,’ Michael said in a statement sent out by Uber. ‘They were wrong no matter the circumstance and I regret them.’
Uber is no stranger to controversy and recently hired President Obama’s former campaign manager David Plouffe to wage what Kalanick called a ‘political’ battle against the taxi industry. But its other problems – allegations of misleading and mistreating drivers, avoiding UK tax and stopping at nothing in its attempt to prevent rivals like Lyft securing venture capital funding – could feasibly be put down to the growing pains of a five-year-old company growing at 300% a year, as it learns to deal with regulators and labour relations on the hoof.
But this latest misstep betrays what many have started to suspect: that Uber’s ferocious ambition is, at best, verging on the unethical, but more likely fuelling some pretty sinister sexism. It won’t stop most people using Uber – the good service and low prices will see to that, although many will now think twice. What it will do is hand the company’s many detractors a whole lot of ammunition. And where those naysayers have legislative and regulatory power they may at least slow down the giant’s growth.