Does Uber have a PR problem?

Last weekend and the earlier part of this week Sharam and I headed to SXSW for some “serious business.”

That’s partly a joke, but mostly true because (cough, cough) it’s extremely important to do things like, oh say, meet up with investors, hob nob with customers, and nurture relationships with prospects.

Just because we were slamming BBQ and sipping on beer (that’s actually not entirely true either – Sharam doesn’t drink, and I prefer wine which seems weird and snobby at South by Southwest) doesn’t mean real work wasn’t getting done.

I have proof. Somewhere. It’s buried in my inbox along with about 1948 unread emails.

During one of our very few cab rides from place to place, we got into a rather heated discussion about Uber’s SXSW surge pricing, which is recounted on Forbes for your viewing pleasure.

Sharam, in his very logical business-like manner, was trying to convince me that “hey, this is how a free market economy works.” This is why he is CEO.

I am well aware of how a free market economy works. But what I am not aware of is how a company that has done a relatively good job of building positive brand sentiment vis-à-vis cute little tactics involving cats and Christmas trees, would risk all of that hard [PR] work because of a business principle that is clearly not aligned with – as our friend Sheryl Pattek of Forrester aptly asserts – “the Age of the Customer.”

Customers aren’t stupid. In fact (as I reminded Sharam HE SAID in his interview with Direct Marketing News on Wednesday) we are all like spoiled children. And when spoiled children feel like they’re getting screwed – they will throw tantrums.

They will walk 2 miles in the pouring rain or get jolted into vibrating oblivion in a pedicab before they will spend $489 on an Uber.

And then…they will talk (or scream) about it because the other extremely intriguing thing about today’s customer is that they have a whole lotta ways to share information.

So what does this have to do with PR?

Well for starters, Uber is an interesting example of the “PR C-Suite Conundrum.” Otherwise known as: what is good for a great PR story is not always good for business; therefore when these two things are not aligned it can set either effort back several steps.

This is something that PR folks battle constantly, particularly in large organizations.

Here is a fun mathematical way to look at it. You have Khan Academy to thank for this:

If X then Y. And if Z is added to X then Y.

If Uber offers good service and competitive prices + convenience then customers will be happy. {good for PR, good for business}

If Uber offers good service and reasonable surge pricing then customers will be mildly annoyed but will still pay because it hasn’t reached “ridiculous” status. {neutral PR, good for business}

If Uber offers good service plus completely absurd surge pricing and rain is added then customers will be totally f*&#ing annoyed and may even write a story about it or tweet about it or put Uber in a time out and decide to walk 10 blocks instead. {bad for PR, good for business}

So, I suppose the real question is – how do we “measure” the impact of potentially damaging PR moves if “business” is demanding PR be measurable. How do you say to a CEO: “hey, go ahead and make that move, but it will take our efforts 10 steps in the wrong direction.”

How do we engineer for that? How do PR pros minimize that risk?

I’m not sure there is a conclusive point here – but what I think is poignant is the fact that I’m a huge Uber fan, and now I’m annoyed. My thinking about the brand is different because I think they took advantage of a situation instead of thinking “how can we be helpful and put the customer first.”

A 180-degree example: Zirtual’s activation at SXSW in which they hired local “runners” to physically provide assistant services to their customers during the SXSW chaos. FOR FREE. They used the opportunity to reward their customers and reduce a pain point.

Now that’s a good PR move. I’ve already told…well, 10,000+ people about it.