Learning From Uber’s GBTA Media Miscues

Posted on August 5, 2014 by - Also by this author

Uber for Business launch at the Global Business Travel Association Convention, Tuesday, July 29, 2014, Los Angeles. Photo by Tim Crowley/LCT
Uber for Business launch at the Global Business Travel Association Convention, Tuesday, July 29, 2014, Los Angeles. Photo by Tim Crowley/LCT

Big money and a big splash do not necessarily translate into the best publicity for a business. One of the business impressions I tend to focus on given my line of work is how well a business or company portrays itself in the media, in its public relations efforts, and at press conferences and exhibits.

After profitability, the next most vital aspect of a successful business is its image and perceptions of targeted audiences. Impressions affect branding, good will, human interactions, and the emotions that ultimately drive the purchase of a product or service.

Uber, the headline-grabbing Transportation Network Company that needs no further explanation beyond its $17 billion valuation, took its first crack at the Global Business Travel Association last week, with a first-time exhibit on the trade show floor in Los Angeles and its first press conference at GBTA. The company formally revealed its Uber For Business service, geared toward business travelers. Details: LCT news article here

From a media standpoint, company debuts and publicity efforts can be painful to watch at times. Size and popularity do not guarantee message success. I’m offering some constructive criticisms below, not to bash Uber, but as practical lessons for anyone in the business world pitching a message:

Look and talk the part: Uber’s exhibit showed an earnest effort to connect. It was friendly, full of free gifts and featured a black Toyota Prius. The company obviously employs many smart, outgoing, and attractive people, under age 40 or so. But the hipster vibe and approach that works with its core youthful urban clientele doesn’t translate into a corporate business travel environment. People project your image, and that means having men and women at an exhibit who resemble and connect with the customers you are trying to reach. In Uber’s case, the company needs men and women of varied ages in business suits — with men in neckties and combed, shorter hair — and not the casual, fashionable looks more associated with tech-industry social events, night clubs or music festivals. And in all professional settings, avoid Millennial-speak: “You guys,” “It’s like,” “You know,” etc., etc.

Don’t be coy: At the Uber presentation on July 29, the representatives clearly did not want to answer questions. They opted for one-on-one chats after the formalities instead of an open audience Q&A. The audience pushed back and got its way, with the Uber reps going back on stage. If you are promoting a product or service and want people to spend money with you, you must be available to answer ANY questions any time in any format. Never look like you want to hide, or irritated about unexpected situations. The Uber reps undercut their message by being loathe to be challenged. In the viral media universe, you must communicate well. If you don’t know something, just be honest and say you don’t know, with a smile, and e-mail the answers to the questioner later.

NEVER show or admit weakness: Twice during the presentation, Uber reps admitted they were new to business travel or didn’t know much about it. You never say something like that publicly. You don’t draw attention to hidden vulnerabilities. Better yet, if you are introducing your business or product, do your research about the target customer and audience. That shows diligence and respect. Know who you are talking to by getting to know them ahead of time. Anticipate and plan for controversial or adversarial questions. Even if you believe you are a bit shaky in one area, don’t admit it. Business travel customers are looking for stability, security, and professionalism. That means you must project confidence in all circumstances.

Deal with the bad news: At one point, after a question about a 6-year-old girl struck and killed by an Uber driver last year in San Francisco, a rep’s resorted to this chestnut: “We don’t comment about pending legal matters, or allegations.” No, no, no! A six year old girl is dead. You can’t just treat it like a copyright spat. That’s a question to be expected, and you should have a better answer prepared, such as this or a variation thereof:

“All of us at Uber are heartbroken over this accident and are very sorry for the suffering of the family. We are confident that the criminal and civil justice systems will do the right thing in finding fault and delivering the right outcome. Until then, we can’t say much more because of what the lawyers always advise, but be assured that Uber will cooperate fully and honestly with authorities and all related parties in the aftermath of this tragic event.”

Takeaway word from all of this: In the always-on media world, you must be UNFLAPPABLE.

Related: LCT August Editor's Column On TNC Tricks 

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