On Wednesday earlier this week, I was invited to get into the hot seat for a fireside chat with Tim Sharp, APD’s Regional Head of Social Media at an Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) event to discuss Stamping Out Social Wildfires. The conversation was covered by IAB on their website here; and appended below.
During a fireside chat led by Tim Sharp, Regional Head of Social Media, APD, the topic of brand reputation in an era of social media, snap judgements and echo chambers was raised.
Sharp asked Leigh Wong, Head of Communications, SEA, Uber how the ride-hailing platform deals with these challenges and what lessons have been learnt in the process.
Wong pointed to the #DeleteUber case which took place at the start of the year, when a tweet sent by Uber New York announcing the suspension of surge pricing for riders around Kennedy Airport backfired spectacularly.
It was sent on the same day a taxi union in New York City issued a statement refusing to pick up aiport passengers, in protest over President Trump’s executive order banning refugees and immigrants from certain countries from entering the United States.
Although the tweet was sent 30 minutes after the end of the protest, many interpreted the alert as an opportunistic attempt to attract business and undermine taxi drivers. The resulting online movement urging people to delete the app reportedly resulted in more than 200,000 uninstallations in six days.
“People saw it as Uber trying to take over, taking money away from hard working taxi drivers,” Wong recalled. “On the surface of it, we were dealing with social media miscommunication and misunderstanding but people didn’t want to hear it, it got lost in the frenzy as the ‘wildfire’ spread.”
On a deeper level, Wong shared that the incident revealed broader sentiment about the brand that had been crystallised over time.
“There’s this narrative that people already had in their heads,” he said. “I’ve always thought about brand reputation as a savings account, if you consistently deposit into it, one day you can withdraw from it when needed.”
That certainly seemed to be the case for Samsung, a brand that the Uber team looked at when drawing lessons internally. The electronics giant went through bad press and a global recall for its Galaxy Note 7 smartphones in late 2016 after multiple reports of the devices exploding and catching fire.
“You’d think something as serious as an exploding phone and the device being banned from flights would be the end for the brand,” mused Wong. “But one year later, with the launch of the Samsung Galaxy Note 8, you have people lining up to buy it and positive product reviews.”
“Clearly it’s something they’ve done well with their brand that we would need to do ourselves,” he added.
That turnaround or redemption story had already been a point of discussion internally within Uber even before new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi came on board. To those thinking “cold chance in hell” that the embattled brand could redeem itself, Wong pointed out that many tech companies have gone though similar journeys – from Google’s Eric Schmidt coming on board to provide “adult supervision” to the founding team to Facebook dealing with Mark Zuckerberg’s film portrayal as a socially-inept founder.
“We were already making a concerted effort to get through the bumps and when Dara came on board there was this sense of renewal and excitement,” he added. “But there is no such thing as a saviour CEO, if we only pin our hopes on him and not do our part, it won’t work.”
On the willingness to be open about the brand’s struggles, Wong said that avoiding the issues would be like ignoring the elephant in the room.
“We would be silly not to acknowledge it, and if we want to change how we are viewed, it’s got to be more than communications,” he added. “Authenticity and reputation is built from the ground up and if we don’t do this, we’d be setting ourselves up for another round of bumbling around.”