Uber CEO Responds to Criticism … Again

Most of the world believes Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered, though how, why, and by whom remains an open question and occasion for strident debate in some circles. The controversy alone should warn people off, especially if they’re not ready to face a firehose of very public rage. The fact that there’s an official version of events that most people tend to take at face value, should give people yet another reason to double-down on caution related to this issue. Especially, once again, if your brand has nothing to do with the tragedy or the controversy related to a murdered journalist. Enter Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi…

During an interview with Axios media, the Uber CEO appeared to defend the Saudi government, whose officials are blamed for Khashoggi’s murder. During the interview, Khosrowshahi said, “I think that (the government) said they made a mistake…” The Uber CEO then tried to clarify by adding, “It’s a serious mistake. We’ve made mistakes too, with self-driving, and we stopped driving and we’re recovering from that mistake… So, I think that people make mistakes, it doesn’t mean that they can never be forgiven.”

From a PR perspective, this statement is a mess wrapped in a disaster.

  1. First, offering an opinion on the issue at all in a press interview has no up-side. It doesn’t help Uber, and it can only cause controversy for the brand, at the very least.
  2. Second, Khosrowshahi’s statements were viewed by many as downplaying the nature of Khashoggi’s murder, comparing it to a traffic accident.
  3. And, third, in an effort to somehow offer empathy, the Uber CEO chose to directly compare the murder of a journalist with the worst moment in his company’s history, when a malfunctioning autonomous vehicle hit and killed a pedestrian.

At what point does reminding a live media audience of the worst moment in your company’s history equal positive PR? And, at what point does comparing that unfortunate accident with the intentional murder of a journalist make any sense whatsoever?

Those are among the many questions Uber and its CEO are currently being asked by both consumer media and countless market analysts who can’t fathom why Uber’s leadership continues to create unnecessary PR firestorms.

Critics have said the comments were made as an intentional financial move, because the Saudi sovereign wealth fund remains a major Uber stakeholder, and its managing director has a seat on Uber’s board of directors. But those theories were put to rest last week when Khosrowshahi went on Twitter to apologize for the comments: “I said something in the moment I don’t believe… Our investors have long known my views and I’m sorry I wasn’t clear…”

And, while that apology might have stifled one conspiracy theory, it didn’t stop the blowback. Many consumers felt the apology was simply not good enough. Both “boycottuber” and “deleteuber” hashtags started trending on social media, while, yet again, Uber’s chief rival, Lyft, sat back and collected new customers thanks to errant comments from another Uber Chief Executive.

Ronn Torossian

Ronn Torossian is the founder and CEO of 5WPR and one of the most well-respected Public Relations professionals in the United States. Ronn is the author of "For Immediate Release: Shape Minds, Build Brands, and Deliver Results with Game-Changing Public Relations."

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