Uber's Mistakes: What Happens When the Media Becomes a Primary Audience?

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When I meet with a client about a communications campaign or program, we rarely discuss media as a target audience. We talk about customers, prospects, partners, sometimes employees - all the groups that explicitly can bring revenue into the company. These are the primary audiences - we want to reach them directly.

Media is most often a secondary audience. They’re a channel we use to reach our primary audiences, not a core audience we’re targeting. It doesn’t mean we ignore them, but we think about them in a different way, as a vehicle rather than a target.

[It’s important to note that media is a very customized vehicle that requires a slightly different planning process than email, Facebook or other communication vehicles. Media can change your message without providing you with any recourse to try and amend what they said. Very different from social media, for example, where your message can be changed on you, but you have the opportunity to directly respond publicly.]

Often times a negative media story will hit and there’s a rush to christen it a catastrophe for the company involved. After the dust settles a bit, we see it’s not nearly as damaging as pundits initially forecast. We’re a high visibility society that lives in the moment so we have a tendency to call every corporate misstep a full blown crisis. In many situations, the actual customers of a product or service didn’t read or weren’t influenced by a media story. Little to no damage is done and everyone moves on.

I’m sure everyone has seen the negative stories focused on Uber that are flowing from the media - and they just keep coming. This, however, is different. Uber customers are not moving on from the story. And they’re not just talking about it, they’re acting. I’ve seen friends on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn say they’re deleting Uber from their phone. I go down my streams and see friend after friend not just sharing an article or commenting, but taking a stand against Uber. The stories that came out this week hit people at two very important points - safety and ethics.

While most of these articles have focused on the company’s poor corporate culture and leadership, something else came to mind for me. This week’s circumstances have put Uber in a unique situation. They now have to look at the media as a primary audience.

Viewing media as a primary audience rather than a secondary audience and communication vehicle means Uber could have to make some fairly significant communication strategy shifts. They now should develop specific messaging and strategies to target the media. Because they took such a dramatic, adversarial stance against the media, they now have to take serious steps to win back journalists - and those steps are different than the ones they would take to market to and communicate with general consumers. That means two different strategies. More work, more time, more planning. They can’t afford to continue seeing the onslaught of negative press and resulting deletions of their app by former users.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about how PR has changed and companies can go directly to consumers. I’ve been one of the leading voices behind that shift. However, this week has shown us that there’s still a place for sound media relations. While the theory of communications has broadened, the media still needs to be thoughtfully considered and respectfully regarded. Uber didn’t do that and the media commandeered their story, forcing them into a situation where the media have become a primary audience.

No matter the company, media relations still needs to be a part of the communications mix. Uber seemed to think they were above the media and could do whatever they wanted because they’re a hot, loved, growing tech company. That’s not the case. It doesn’t matter if you’re a brand new startup, a trendy company like Uber or a giant like Nike - the media is an important audience to be considered. The reliance on media may be decreasing, but the importance still remains.