Why Uber’s ‘Smear the Press’ Approach Would Never Work


Today we bring you a guest post from Andrew Graham, founding partner of Clear and co-founder of Grow America.

Uber has managed to give opposition research a bad rap.

What surprised me about Ben Smith’s scoop — that an executive at Uber floated the idea to use opposition researchers to smear journalists who write things the company does not want them to write — isn’t that the idea apparently existed in some form.

What surprised me is how profoundly bad that specific idea is on its own, and that it would even cross the mind of someone who has managerial responsibility at a company valued at $18b.

The idea, as summarized in BuzzFeed:

Over dinner, [Uber’s Emil Michael] outlined the notion of spending “a million dollars” to hire four top opposition researchers and four journalists. That team could, he said, help Uber fight back against the press — they’d look into “your personal lives, your families,” and give the media a taste of its own medicine. …Uber’s dirt-diggers, Michael said, could expose [PandoDaily editor-in-chief Sarah] Lacy. They could, in particular, prove a particular and very specific claim about her personal life.

Using opposition research to either blackmail or punish influential critics of Uber has many problems, several of which are immediately obvious and profoundly dangerous from a communications standpoint.

First, it assumes that ripping apart critics in an intensely personal, vindictive way is or could be a net positive for Uber, a company that wants as many people as possible to use its software to get inside a car so that a stranger can take them to their home. Since it can only succeed by earning and then maintaining the trust of users, it should not behave in such an obviously untrustworthy way. Moreover, the idea involves finding four credible journalists who would immediately shed the ethics that guide their craft for cash in an odious quid-pro-quo arrangement. I can’t name one, let alone four, tech writers who are both credible and potentially for sale to this particular company.

Finally, the obvious outcome of the idea is enabling journalists to write about how they are the subject of blackmail and smear tactics orchestrated, managed, and paid for by Uber, not seeing them change how they cover the company because of those things.

But aside from all that, the fact that an Uber executive spoke of the idea aloud, in front of the very people who the idea is designed to completely screw, suggests an unaware, amateurish environment where leadership does not know enough about how media works to be able to use it as a tool.

The mere existence of the idea Michael revealed should worry Uber’s investors. There should never be an appetite to fight the press because your most vocal press critics are among your most important audiences. And media is the recipient of opposition research, not the subject of it. Uber is doing everything seemingly possible to erode the trust of every stakeholder that impacts its success.

And let’s make one thing clear: Companies in many industries, including and especially emerging tech, do use campaign-style tactics to advance their business interests. The ones that do this effectively, though, do it without talking about it, because drawing attention to the process defeats its purpose.

In the tech business, which detests real privacy to the degree that it wants to make actual news out of stuff users think they are posting anonymously, nothing said or stated is ever off the record. This is all really basic stuff and I’m shocked Uber can’t get it right.

Andrew Graham is co-founder of Clear, an agency that provides public relations, communications, and ghostwriting services.