Two Examples of Bad PR, Q4 2014

Bill Cosby: Media throughout the fall have been reporting accusations spanning the 1960s to the 2000s that Bill Cosby drugged and raped women. The media that ignited the current crisis were not traditional news outlets; a viral campaign on social media drove the story. The drumbeat began with a standup comedy routine by Hannibal Burgess in October 2014 that lambasted Cosby’s moralizing in light of past rape accusations against him. Burgess urged the crowd to “google ‘Bill Cosby Rape.'” (Note: clip contains raw language.) An audience member shot the video, which was posted to YouTube.

The YouTube video garnered attention and pushed the story to the mainstream media. Ten years ago, Andrea Constand, a staff member for Temple University’s basketball team, accused Cosby of drugging and raping her. Three other women–Tamara Green, Barbara Bowman and Beth Currier–went public with similar accusations. A dozen unnamed women were ready to testify against Cosby in the civil suit brought by Constand, but their accounts were never heard as the suit was settled out of court in 2006.

As comedian Burgess pointed out in media interviews, the accusations against Cosby and his legal issues had been known to the public during the past decade, with the Today show and People magazine granting interviews to the early accusers. The difference in this decade was social media, where gatekeepers and equal time principles do not apply. Per The New York Times, Cosby’s team of agents and lawyers were adept at minimizing damaging mainstream media coverage in past years.  But as Tiger Woods learned when his womanizing crisis unfolded in 2009, even the most formidable team of handlers will be hapless when applying their timeworn techniques in the current media era.

Cosby’s own haplessness was apparent in his official silence. He urged an AP reporter to delete remarks about the growing scandal from an interview and shook his head and remained mute when an NPR reporter followed a similar line of questioning. The vaunted Cosby team failed miserably as well, launching a meme to put the comedian in a favorable light. Instead of fans embracing the tactic, multitudes turn the Cosby photos into captioned commentary denouncing and insulting him.

The number of women accusing Cosby of drugging and raping them has now surged into double digits. NBC and Netflix have pulled Cosby projects, TVLand has taken Cosby reruns off the air, and several live venues have cancelled his appearances.

Uber: Digital technology has upended numerous industries. Uber represents this disruption in the taxi and transportation industry, linking riders and drivers via mobile app, decentralizing the dispatching process while centralizing the payment process through the app. Uber markets itself as “faster and better,” consumer benefits historically promised by companies that present a technological distinction.

Uber has the makings of a “tech darling,” a company that wins public and media approbation due to its inventiveness. USA Today named it tech company of the year in 2013. Yet, Uber has courted controversy throughout its existence, primarily due to the fact that it is not subject to the licensing and regulation imposed on traditional taxi and limo companies. As the company has expanded globally, it has faced fines, restrictions and bans in numerous regions.

Not all of Uber’s media coverage has been as positive as USA Today’s accolade. Uber’s EVP of Business, Evan Michael, suggested at a dinner attended by VIPs that Uber could hire a team to dig up dirt on journalists writing negative stories about the company, focusing on Sarah Lacy, editor of PandoDaily, a noted Uber critic.

This throwback to Nixon’s Enemies List created a PR crisis and cast a harsher light on company practices already under scrutiny, including:

  • Tracking Uber riders’ travel data without justification or permission
  • Placing bogus calls for rides with rival Lyft to slow down their service
  • Using “surge pricing” to jack up fares at high demand times, an algorithm-based system that resulted in price increases during Superstorm Sandy and the Sydney hostage standoff in December 2014

Uber is trying to amend its confrontational image, making CEO Travis Kalanick available to New York journalists in an overture of openness and hiring Obama strategist David Plouffe as senior VP of policy and strategy.

About Jason William Karpf

Author, Professor, Nonprofit Pro, Four-Time Jeopardy Champ
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