PR crisis or reality problem? The communications challenge facing Brand Kalanick

Controversial former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has hired Teneo BlueRubicon to ‘refresh his tarnished image’, according to reports.

Though I can’t see confirmation on the record from either Kalanick or Teneo in the sources I’ve read, no denial from either party suggests a grain of truth. Real news or fake news, it makes the news because Kalanick is news. And because an executive’s personal brand drives the reputation of the firm, Brand Kalanick is a problem for both.

Despite Uber delivering undoubted value for the urban consumer, the economic consensus is that the ‘disruptive’ gig economy mostly transfers value from the many workers who supply the service to the few entrepreneurs that built the platform. This, coupled with his confrontational leadership style and the culture of endemic sexism within Uber, means Kalanick has the media’s attention for the wrong reasons.

In that context, these are the major challenges I see facing Brand Kalanick:

Start the next chapter, but first close the old one

At Propeller we advise clients to use one of seven classic storytelling types to describe their own stories: both the story of the company itself and that of the individual.

Founder-CEOs’ stories are by nature naturally aligned to that of the business. Told well, they’re a powerful way to build the brand. Necessity, context and opportunity are the mothers of invention; think Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos. But equally individuals can toxify a brand.

Uber’s story is largely positive is the eyes of its users. A story of ‘Overcoming the Monster’; it’s cast as a hero saving the passenger from the tyranny of overpriced cabs. Behind that sits Uber’s business narrative of ‘The Quest’, a mission to reinvent transportation.

But while Kalanick’s personal brand remains tethered to Uber, he doesn’t benefit from its consumer halo. He’s cast as the villain in the Uber story, exerting unwelcome influence on the board despite being ousted as CEO. A PR albatross that few incoming CEOs would want round their necks, it’s easy to pin any company ills on him (including the long search for his replacement) for as long as he continues to be associated with the firm.

For a story to change, one chapter needs to end and a new one needs to begin. Kalanick detoxifying his personal brand is probably just part of a wider brief; my guess is that he hired a PR firm to lay the groundwork for his next move and that he’ll step down before too long.

No reputation is unrepairable, but it requires change in the real world

A powerful PR firm can use its influence and relationships to dampen negative news. But while a change to a more measured tone or ‘PR rebrand’ is essential, no agency can repair a reputation without new facts.

It’s easy to develop a siege mentality and get the feeling the media has made its mind up, and will distort the facts to fit the story their audience want to hear. I don’t buy this. Investigative journalists may work to an editorial agenda but I think most journalists just want to find interesting stories.

The onus is on the brand to make it easy for the media to see the new positive story as more compelling than the old negative one. Kalanick needs to prove the positive value that he creates, in the real world. Hire real people. Treat them well. Create new economic & social value without demolishing others (don’t just displace it). Find the moment for the Mea Culpa and move on.

Be prepared for a negative reception, but it won’t last

Elon Musk was famous for PayPal. Then he did something else. But you can bet that in the first 20 interviews he did after PayPal he was asked mostly about PayPal. Probably far less these days.

Journalists pick up the stories where they left off. And even after Kalanick’s Uber chapter ends he will be asked about it. The key is finding ways to use that interest to pivot into your new story: media training will test whether that new story will pass the credibility test.

Some journalists might look for (sometimes flimsy) reasons to keep a negative story rumbling on, but facts speak the loudest - the actions of a brand make it toxic in the first place so the onus is on it to find new facts to move the story on.

Kalanick is undoubtedly a technology visionary with the talent and influence to change people’s lives for the better – most people will give him the benefit of the doubt if he channels his talent into something positive. The job of PR is to help him surface a new positive story and move on from the past.

Just don’t expect PR to fix a reality crisis.

Matt Phillips leads executive communications at media PR agency Propeller.

This article first appeared in City AM, 21/08/17

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