Uber CEO Tries to Outrace Avalanche of Criticism After Exec's Remarks

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Uber CEO Travis Kalanick in September 2014 appearance at TechCrunch Disrupt in San Francisco.  (Steve Jennings/Getty Images)

Update, Wednesday 10:30 a.m.: The other shoe hasn't fallen yet in Uber's ReporterGate. Emil Michael, the senior vice president who suggested spying on and discrediting journalists critical of the company still apparently has his job. But the company is being strafed with a string of reports on its culture and alleged privacy violations.

The Los Angeles Times reviews the latest stories here: Uber -- as drivers get perks, riders lose patience with privacy snafus.

The LAT list includes a must-read item from Business Insider on the qualities the company most values in employees. In addition to standard checklist items like "vision" and "innovation" -- aren't we all visionary innovators now? -- Uber wants to see "fierceness" and "super-pumpedness" in its workers.

Original post (Tuesday, Nov. 19): Uber CEO Travis Kalanick is trying to get ahead of the avalanche of criticism roaring down on the ride-service company -- by issuing a 14-tweet explanation/manifesto/apology about a fellow Uber exec's musings about playing dirty tricks on journalists.

Here's a taste of Kalanick's Twitter epic:

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More from the Uber CEO later. But first, how did we get here?

Kalanick's, and Uber's, crisis was sparked by BuzzFeed's account of a dinner the company sponsored for "an influential New York crowd" last Friday night. Kalanick was in attendance, as was a senior vice president named Emil Michael. Here's BuzzFeed's account of Michael's remarks:

[H]e outlined the notion of spending “a million dollars” to hire four top opposition researchers and four journalists. That team could, he said, help Uber fight back against the press — they’d look into “your personal lives, your families,” and give the media a taste of its own medicine.

Michael was particularly focused on one journalist, Sarah Lacy, the editor of the Silicon Valley website PandoDaily, a sometimes combative voice inside the industry. Lacy recently accused Uber of “sexism and misogyny.” She wrote that she was deleting her Uber app after BuzzFeed News reported that Uber appeared to be working with a French escort service. “I don’t know how many more signals we need that the company simply doesn’t respect us or prioritize our safety,” she wrote.

At the dinner, Michael expressed outrage at Lacy’s column and said that women are far more likely to get assaulted by taxi drivers than Uber drivers. He said that he thought Lacy should be held “personally responsible” for any woman who followed her lead in deleting Uber and was then sexually assaulted.

Then he returned to the opposition research plan. Uber’s dirt-diggers, Michael said, could expose Lacy. They could, in particular, prove a particular and very specific claim about her personal life.

Michael at no point suggested that Uber has actually hired opposition researchers, or that it plans to. He cast it as something that would make sense, that the company would be justified in doing.

When someone suggested that carrying out such a plan might create problems for Uber, BuzzFeed reported, Michael said, "Nobody would know it was us."

The BuzzFeed report prompted a scathing response from Lacy on PandoDaily: "The moment I learned just how far Uber will go to silence journalists and attack women."

And Tuesday on KQED's Forum, Lacy said she attributed Michael's remarks to a company culture she says is essentially hostile to women.

"... You know, there was a really disturbing [advertising] campaign that was put out in Uber France office that was essentially treating female drivers like prostitutes. And it was incredibly disturbing. Everyone was bothered by that. BuzzFeed wrote about it. When I saw it, yeah, I saw the culmination of two-year company’s culture growing from something that was cute and fratty and funny when it launched to something that is quite disturbing that remains unchecked in the company. And as a woman I simply didn’t feel safe getting in the cars. Again, no on was fired for that. And when you’re sending a message out to drivers and riders, and you’re frankly sending it to corporate executives, that treating a woman like a prostitute is funny, it’s really scary."


Lacy also said that Michael's remarks made her fear for her family's safety. "It’s been a crazy 24 hours of changing a lot of the security in my house, a lot of the security protocols around my kids," Lacy said. "As you know, I’ve been covering Silicon Valley for a very long time, writing critical things about lots of powerful people, and this is an extreme one, even for me.”

The BuzzFeed story and Lacy's response touched off a flurry of official Uber responses cast more as explanations than apologies.

"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 released by the company. "They were wrong no matter the circumstance and I regret them."

Company spokeswoman Nairi Hourdajian added: "We have not, do not and will not investigate journalists. Those remarks have no basis in the reality of our approach."

Michael, in a Twitter conversation with critics Tuesday night, did offer an apology to Lacy:

And that, finally, leads us back to Kalanick's Twitter War&Peace. The CEO starts out by calling Michael's comments "terrible," says the company needs to do a better job showing that it's "principled and means well," and ends with an apology to Lacy.

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One thing Kalanick doesn't say is whether Michael will keep his job. And here's why you might wonder about that. The company is universally celebrated in the annals of entrepreneurship for its $18 billion market valuation, its rapid inroads into markets worldwide and its seeming determination to sidestep or steamroll opposition wherever it's encountered. But now the company, its attitude and Kalanick's leadership are under all-out media siege, to judge from a few headlines. To wit: