To counter the criticism and lawsuits, Uber needs a human face

John Holton says founder Travis Kalanick must be seen to be championing its vision, as his fellow Silicon Valley disruptors do for their firms

PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 October, 2015, 11:44am
UPDATED : Friday, 16 October, 2015, 11:44am

Two months ago, Hong Kong police raided Uber's offices and arrested seven driver-partners. This event was designed to demonstrate the city's stance on unlicensed taxi services, but was a clear attack on the start-up's activities.

In the age of social media, the voice of a leader has far greater ability to sway opinion than does a logo

Several weeks ago, a court in San Francisco ruled that Uber drivers are employees, not independent contractors, and therefore entitled to the same benefits enjoyed by all other US workers. The ruling could have serious implications for Uber's business model.

The phenomenally successful Silicon Valley company is leading the disruption of an industry that hasn't changed in half a century. Many commentators believe it will have the same impact on transportation that Amazon and Netflix have had on retail and content, respectively.

What is interesting about Uber's rise is the level of criticism and lawsuits it has attracted, and the lack of public visibility from its leadership team. Travis Kalanick, founder and CEO, has kept a low profile, choosing to assign public relations teams to answer the concerns of consumers and lawmakers.

Unlike fellow Silicon Valley disrupters such as Elon Musk, Brian Chesky, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Kalanick seems less willing to publicly defend the company he founded.

READ MORE: Travis Kalanick, the fall and spectacular rise of the man behind Uber

In an age when we are more likely to trust other human beings than the promises of corporations, leaders are becoming an increasingly important communications weapon.

When Page and Brin at Google told us that they promised to "do no evil", we felt calmer about using their service. When Musk at Tesla went on national television to explain why his cars were catching fire, we realised this is a guy in control of his company. When Tony Fernandes from AirAsia stood in front of relatives and the world's media, we concluded, "Here is a company that is accountable".

In the age of social media, the voice of a leader has far greater ability to sway opinion than does a logo. The trouble with Uber is that we don't (at least perceptually) have a person to pin it to. The legal battle taking place in San Francisco is about human beings and the responsibility owed to them by the company they serve. Perhaps Uber's cause would be better understood if the argument were championed by the person at the helm.

READ MORE: China to put Uber and rivals under multi-regulatory scrutiny

As companies look to build reputations, particularly those that severely disrupt established marketplaces, their leaders need to be centre stage.

For Uber, and Kalanick, this means explaining the mission and convincing us that their incredibly pervasive service has longer-term benefits both for individuals and for society at large.

John Holton is a Hong Kong based partner at Prophet, a global brand and marketing consultancy