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What Communicators Can Learn from Uber’s London Response

Dara Khosrowshahi’s apology to the people of London was a refreshing change in tone for a company that previously hadn’t ceded an inch of ground in defense of its aggressive growth strategies.  While the statement was a step in the right direction, it shows that the company still has a lot of work to do.
Over the last two years, my firm, together with Procter & Gamble, conducted comprehensive analyses of how companies can most effectively engage with consumers and critics in crisis situations.  We learned which approaches to language and messaging build credibility and mitigate criticism, and which feed the flames of an ongoing crisis or unwanted attention. With the help of a team of academic behavioral scientists, we also explored why.

While every issue is different, clear patterns emerge.  Some of these are obvious to the outside observer – such as the need to accept responsibility in some form.  Others are highly dependent on the combination of facts at play in a given situation.  But effective responses can be built when companies understand the answers to 3 central questions.  Had Khosrowshahi minded them, it would have resulted in a more effective and credible letter.
  • How personal is the impact to your audience? In other words, does the issue hit close to home or is it distant? The more an audience feels personally impacted by the issue, the more sensitive they will be to the language used by the company.  The need for empathy, humility, and acknowledgement of the audience’s emotion is directly correlated with the perceived impact.  This situation is moderately personal. While most customers haven’t had an unsafe situation, they have heard about those who have.
  • What is the real criticism of the company?  In the low-trust world we live in, the public has created a defined set of narratives about how companies behave.  They put profits over customers.  They hide the truth.  They cut corners to save money.  Building from the work of renowned psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, we have identified a core set of often-deeply held negative narratives about companies.  To be effective, a response must not only address the specific issue, it must also address this larger negative narrative.  In Uber’s case, specific concerns about safety are seen as credible because of a larger narrative that Uber will put profit above all else, even if some customers get hurt.
  • What actions are you taking?  It’s not enough for a company to say they care about the core issues at stake in a crisis (i.e. customer safety, transparency, fairness).  Companies must demonstrate they do.  Actions the company takes in response to a given crisis prove sustained commitment to the values at stake and deliver crucial credibility to the idea that the company genuinely cares about rectifying the situation.  In this case, Khosrowshahi neglected to talk about the actions the company has taken and will continue to take to protect customers and adhere to regulations.  Instead, he listed actions that have nothing to do with the issue at hand and it came off as smoke and mirrors.
So how did Khosrowshahi’s response rate?  We ran the response through our Dynamic Response™ platform to identify areas where we would recommend a different approach.  Overall, we’d give it Uber’s letter a B. 
For more information about Dynamic Response™ and how it can work for your organization, please go to

Michael Maslansky is CEO of maslansky + partners. Michael employs research and data-driven approaches to advise Fortune 500 corporations, industry associations, major litigation practices and non-profit organizations on language strategy and messaging issues.