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Reign in Those Investors, Uber: Leave PR to the PR People

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By Mark Wilson, Esq. on November 24, 2014 10:52 AM

America is still murmuring about Emil Michael, the Uber executive who developed a case of foot-in-mouth disease at a dinner party last week. BuzzFeed reported that Michael wanted to create a team within Uber to dig up dirt on journalists critical of the ridesharing service and publicly embarrass them.

That went about as well as you'd expect, with angry customers claiming they'd deleted the app and Senator Al Franken asking more questions about what Uber does with all of that private data.

So what's a company to do?

It Almost Worked ...

Damage control, and fast, which Uber did pretty well, actually. First, the company issued a press release in which Michael apologized for his comments, claiming they were "borne out of frustration" and "do not reflect [his] actual views." Next, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick tweeted apologies to the world, again emphasizing that Michael's comments don't reflect the company's opinion.

Next, amid concerns about how much access Uber staff have to customer information, Uber agreed to appoint Harriet Pearson, a privacy expert with the law firm Hogan Lovells, to review its data privacy program.

Good, good, but there were some rogue elements who put a damper on the damage control. Ashton Kutcher -- yes, celebrity Former Mr. Demi Moore Ashton Kutcher -- is a big Uber investor, and he went to Twitter (as is his tendency) to defend his investment. A PR person, on the other hand, might describe him as "going rogue."

Kutcher claimed that there was nothing wrong with "digging up dirt on [a] shady journalist" and pointed people to FindLaw (thanks big guy) for more information on "public figures" and journalistic standards. While the nod is great for us, Kutcher's comments, implying that journalists are somehow fair game for harassment of a type that they don't themselves engage in, probably set back the Uber strategy just a teensy bit.

Thanks, but No Thanks

When it comes to corporate communications, GCs should be in touch with the PR department to make sure everything that's said is truthful. They should also help reign in any rogues (like Kutcher) who could disrupt their message at best, or be mistaken for speaking on the company's behalf, at worst.

It's supremely delicate, but a failure to disavow those comments could be interpreted as ratifying them (much like disavowing Michael's comments, but keeping him employed, raises questions about how much Uber really disagrees with what he said). In order to keep the message unified, make sure that there aren't any competing messages out there. Even someone who's trying to be on the company's side can be potentially harmful; leave the PR to the PR people.

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