Uber Grabs the Wheel and Tries to Steer Its Media Narrative

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Uber's now doing its best not to be a backseat driver with media narratives about its brand.

The ride-share company has announced that it will no longer force alleged victims of harassment and sexual assault—including its passengers, drivers and corporate employees—into private arbitration.

Uber will now allow these victims to choose where and how they want to pursue restitution and justice whether that's through arbitration, mediation or open court, modifying what was previously written in its terms of service. This move comes two weeks after CNN published a report that found at least 103 Uber drivers in the U.S. have been accused of sexually assaulting or abusing their passengers in the last four years.

The company's change in how it handles these matters reflects a deliberate corporate decision to contribute toward a more outspoken, open culture of speaking out against sexual abuse and end what has long been a culture of corporate silence around such matters across industries.

The move by Uber raises two questions: How far does this change in policy go toward repairing Uber’s reputation, and what does this mean for other companies with arbitration clauses? Just hours after Uber's announcement, Lyft followed suit by also allowing victims to pursue cases in open court and waiving the requirement to keep any settlement proceedings confidential.

Andy Gilman, president and CEO of CommCore Consulting Group, says that Uber is taking a step-by-step approach to improving its reputation, and that companies that have similar compulsory arbitration clauses have been put on notice.

"It takes an incident like sexual assault to expose the one-sided nature of these compulsory arbitration clauses," says Gilman. "This will not be the last issue Uber has to clean up to show it is dealing with all issues so that customers will trust the brand."

As they are but one of many companies that have “tiny print” clauses in their agreements that require arbitration in the event of a dispute, Uber understands that almost no consumers read these until they need to, and companies do this intentionally to avoid cost and time-consuming litigation. Gilman also points out that that Uber chief legal officer Tony West has credentials from the Justice Department to add weight to the policy.

MWW PR chair reputation management and chief strategy officer Careen Winters says that Uber's new direction should remind communicators that doing the right thing is always a good move. "However, doing the right thing under the duress of a national media investigation is unlikely to yield the kind of reputation benefits that putting customer safety first would have done for Uber," she says.

"On the heels of controversies ranging from exploitative use of surge pricing to questionable CEO behavior, there are reasonable questions about Uber’s values at a time when consumers are increasingly voting with their wallets and using shared values as a key decision maker."

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