Tonight we might get a glimpse of the kinder, gentler Uber, but we won’t be able to talk about it. The startup has endured months of disastrous press coverage, including Uber exec Emil Michael saying the company should smear journalists that criticize it.
Now the company has emailed reporters saying “The Uber Communications Team invites you to join us for drinks” at a San Francisco bar tonight.
The invite explicitly notes “The Event Is Off-The-Record” meaning journalists won’t be able to publish what’s said there. “Off-The-Record” is the same policy that was supposed to be in effect at the dinner where Michael made his catastrophic remarks, though the BuzzFeed editor who broke the story said he never agreed to that stipulation.
Press mixers aren’t uncommon in Silicon Valley, but we believe this is Uber’s first event of this nature that’s expressly for journalists and its PR team. The company has historically kept press at arm’s length, typically communicating over the phone rather than in person or through events, though it did hold this meeting between NY press and Uber execs.
It could feel that human faces will improve communication. The company claims “Our team has grown a lot. It’s just a casual opportunity to get together in person with the local reporters we work with every day.”
Last year at TechCrunch Disrupt, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick discussed how Uber has to play nicer now that it’s so powerful. He admitted that “You have to find different ways of doing things, different ways of communicating, and just understanding that people look at you as the big guy now, not the scrappy guy, and it requires a different way of running your business”.
For much of its life, Uber has been a relative darling in the press, which has covered its every expansion and weird promotional stunt. But last year’s run of issues — including several rape cases involving Uber users, surge pricing complaints and the aforementioned incident where exec Emil Michael said at dinner for Uber VIPs that he wanted to dig up dirt on journalists that criticize his company — may have forced an immovable wedge between Uber and press.
The perception of journalists is especially important for Uber. The company’s aggressively pragmatic strategy has helped it raise $3.3 billion in funding, but often puts it at odds with taxi drivers, city governments, and even its users. Reporters with a bone to pick can find plenty of cabbies put out of work, laws broken, and customers burned by surge pricing.
Uber would like to get those stories to flip to its narrative. Unaccountable and inconvenient cabs being disrupted; outdated and monopolistic laws circumvented for the good of the public; the laws of supply and demand employed to ensure a reliable service.
I’ll be there tonight assessing what Uber’s after, even if I can’t write about it.