You know what's a bad idea when you’re a startup looking to boost your credibility? Tell people you're willing to spend "a million dollars" to research "the personal lives" and "families" of journalists who are critical of your company.
That's what Uber Senior VP of Business Emil Michael did during a private dinner in New York last week. PR pros, take note: For most any corporate executive, going after his or her media critics is usually a no-win proposition.
Michael is said to have suggested that Uber could form a group of people that would research journalists, according to Business Insider. Michael thought he was off the record, but BuzzFeed’s editor-in-chief Ben Smith wrote up the comments, saying that BuzzFeed was not told the comments were off the record.
While Uber did not say it gathered such information, here's what Smith reported: "The general manager of Uber NYC accessed the (Uber) profile of a BuzzFeed News reporter, Johana Bhuiyan, to make points in the course of a discussion of Uber policies. At no point in the email exchanges did she give him permission to do so."
Smith added that Uber accessed the profile of a journalist to see where that journalist had traveled while using Uber, Business Insider reported.
An Uber spokesperson told Smith this was against Uber's policies: "Any such activity would be clear violations of our privacy and data access policies. Access to and use of data is permitted only for legitimate business purposes. These policies apply to all employees. We regularly monitor and audit that access."
After the BuzzFeed report, Michael backtracked on the comments.
“The remarks attributed to me at a private dinner—borne out of frustration during an informal debate over what I feel is sensationalistic media coverage of the company I am proud to work for—do not reflect my actual views and have no relation to the company’s views or approach,” Michael said in a statement, per The New York Times. “They were wrong no matter the circumstance and I regret them.”
Uber has said that the private dinner was supposed to be considered an off-the-record affair. But now Uber not only has sparked mistrust among the media but probably among customers and prospects, as well. That can’t be good.
The episode is also a reminder that, for PR managers and directors, nothing is “off the record.”
Follow Matthew Schwartz on Twitter: @mpsjourno1