Uber Goes Right at New York’s Mayor in a Fight Over Policy, but Is It a Wise Strategy?

Calls out de Blasio in TV ad and app

Uber ran spots on cable TV Wednesday night slamming New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is supporting a proposed measure that would cap the number of licenses granted to car operators for ride-hailing services. Such an ordinance could stall Uber's growth in Gotham, and the San Francisco-based mobile player suggests in its ad that the legislation would ultimately kill off 10,000 jobs in the city.

Today, Uber took the fight directly to its app. New Yorkers using Uber are seeing a "DE BLASIO" button at the bottom of their smartphone screens, right next to the regular ride-ordering options such as UberPool and UberBlack. Tapping the button takes users to the app's familiar map, where they can see how many available cars are nearby—only, there are no cars on the map.

What's more, people who click on the vehicleless map are encouraged to email the mayor's office and city council members to side with Uber. Folks are also invited to subscribe to an email list and get future messaging about the cause.

There are also reports of direct mail claiming de Blasio is caving in to yellow-taxi lobbyists.

David Plouffe, a former campaign manager for President Barack Obama and now an Uber exec, appears to be commanding the entire effort.

It seems relatively unusual for a major tech company to battle a single elected official, so we asked public-relations practitioners whether the strategy is well-advised.

"Uber is in a honeymoon period with consumers," said veteran tech PR practitioner George H. Simpson. "But it is a matter of time before this kind of overly aggressive, confrontational position wears thin. All they are doing now is making powerful political enemies."

But Howard Schacter, New York-based president of DiGennaro Communications, had a different take, saying Uber has taken a similar approach elsewhere and won. The company has been challenged by legislative proposals in cities like Chicago and Denver but always seems to gather enough public support on social media to continue doing business as usual.

"Aiming right at our mayor to 'picket' against his proposal to cap for-hire vehicles isn't a new tactic," Schacter said. "Jumping into crisis mode is what Uber is best at, and its riders have come to expect, if not anticipate, this type of reaction. While certainly an authentic tactic for this brand, Uber does pose a risk of upsetting a small segment of its user base. There is a very fine line between maintaining brand authenticity and being too provocative."

Now, it will be interesting to see how de Blasio and his team react.

Meanwhile, here is Uber's TV ad that ran Wednesday night: