Do Startups Really Need PR? Yes, Especially If They're Uber

Kutcher's Defense Little Help After Another Spat With the Press

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Credit: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Uber General Manager Chris Nakutis decried PR this summer as a waste of money, at least as far his prior startup went.

But as Uber showed spectacularly again this week, almost every growing company will need communications professionals eventually.

Especially if it's Uber.

As it happens, the company this summer tapped former Obama campaign manager David Plouffe to head communications, so it already has a veteran of press combat on staff. And it is seeking communications staffers in various global markets, including a communications lead in New York, according to its website. "We love telling our story -- it's amazing," a job post says. "And we're looking for a dynamic communications hustler to do just that -- manage communications for the New York City market."

But those job postings might benefit from adding crisis communications to the qualifications (not currently mentioned) after BuzzFeed reported Monday on a dinner where an Uber exec suggested that the company should hire opposition researchers to dig into its media critics -- "specifically to spread details of the personal life of a female journalist who has criticized the company," as BuzzFeed recounted it.

Uber added on Tuesday that it was investigating its top New York executive for tracking a reporter using its internal "God View" of riders in violation of its own policy.

All that followed earlier bouts with the press over tactics like tying up rival services by scheduling rides with them and then canceling. Uber did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.

Company CEO Travis Kalanick quickly apologized to the reporter singled out for opposition research by the executive at that dinner, Emil Michael, senior VP-business. Mr. Kalanick also made a series of tweets disowning Mr. Michael's dinner chatter and talking about envisioning a better day in company communications.

But critics don't think the company went far enough. And its communications problem is complicated by the the fact that reporters occupy the center of the most recent stories.

"The fact that it was a journalist definitely accelerated it and heightened the concern among people who know how to communicate," said Gene Grabowski, partner at KGlobal. "They're prone to writing about it now when they might not have, and they're notably upset."

Blogger Robert Scoble argued that Uber CEO Travis Kalanick should resign precisely because the company was "pissing off journalists."

Tracking another reporter's movements was ill-timed, too -- at best. "It comes at a time when the government is sparring with Apple and other tech companies over the inscription of phones," Mr Grabowski said, adding that privacy is top-of-mind for journalists and much of the public.

What's next? Mr. Kalanick can step down and become what Mr. Grabowski describes as "the sacrificial lamb," or issue a powerful statement, said Mr. Grabowski.

In the long run, Uber should worry less about its reputation than the regulations that might stunt its growth at a time when copycats and taxi services are adopting Uber-like technology, he said.

For now it's left to be batted around by presumably unsolicited "help" from defenders such as Ashton Kutcher. Mr. Kutcher today backed the Uber exec's journalist-shaming fantasy:

After the predictable response on Twitter, Mr. Kutcher backtracked.

Whether or not Uber issues a communications counterattack in the form of that powerful statement Mr. Grabowski recommends, at a minimum it will want to put out a message it actually planned.

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