Safety Report Helps Uber Take Control of Negative-Trending Narrative

I Believe the Company’s Honest, Open Discussion of Safety Incidents Puts Uber in the Lead, With One Caveat          

12/6/19 – – Yesterday’s release by Uber of its first-ever Safety Report deserves the serious attention of every crisis communicator. But before I offer my analysis, let me share a relevant (I promise) story that’s not as serious. 

Comedian Richard Jeni was a colleague of mine at the public relations firm Hill & Knowlton back in the late 1970s, early ‘80s (back then everyone knew him as Richie Colangelo). We started as young account executives in H&K’s New York office around the same time and remained good friends until his untimely passing in 2007. I think of him a lot  around this time of year because of how much fun it was to receive his Christmas card, which always included an irreverent hand-written greeting. Memories of Richard and his special brand of humor popped into my head this morning when I read that ride-hailing company Uber had released a Safety Report chronicling incidents of fatal accidents, homicides and sexual assaults involving its passengers and drivers in the United States over the last two years.

What does Richard Jeni have to do with Uber’s safety report? Let me explain.

In one of Richard’s stand-up routines, he ponders the challenge faced by trial attorneys defending horrible people. They’re duty-bound to do their best to make a case for their clients, no matter how heinous the crime. Richard makes the point that even historic serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, who raped, murdered and dined on 17 boys and men, was represented by an attorney who had to convince a jury to go easy on the admitted cannibal sitting in front of them in court. Pacing back and forth on stage, in his best lawyerly voice, Richard presents a suggested closing argument:

“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury . . . as you decide the fate of Mr. Dahmer, I ask you to consider the following: Of the more than 300 million people living in the United States, how many did my client kill? Seventeen. That’s a tiny percentage of the population of this great nation. And even more important, did he ever lift a fork to any one of you?”

I told you his was a special brand of humor.

Richard’s Jeffrey Dahmer routine came to mind when I read this assertion in the executive summary of the Uber report:

“The vast majority (99.9%) of Uber trips end without any safety-related issue at all. For example, for the 2.3 billion trips in 2017 and 2018 . . . 0.0003% of trips had a report of a critical safety incident, which are the incidents referenced in this report.”

The report defines “critical safety incidents” as motor vehicle fatalities, fatal physical assaults, and sexual assaults, which include rape. Uber reveals there were 5,981 sexual assaults (ranging from non-consensual kissing to rape) involving passengers, drivers and third parties over the study’s two-year period. And seeming to channel Richard Jeni’s pretend trial attorney, Uber drives home the point that while 55 percent of the victims of these incidents were passengers, Uber drivers were victimized 45 percent of the time!

Does that make you feel any safer?

Now, I want to be fair. In its full-page ads running in major newspapers today, Uber concedes that, “even 0.1% is hard to accept. Because that number represents the real experiences of drivers and riders — and that’s unacceptable.” The company deserves high marks for being honest and open about this very serious challenge and the steps it is taking to address it. They have no choice but to try to take more control of the narrative around safety. Just last week regulators in the U.K. cited safety concerns when they revoked Uber’s license to operate in London.

Actually, there’s a lot I like about Uber’s efforts to deal with its critical safety issues. Here are four important pluses:

Uber is Not Going it Alone

One of the seven elements measured by the Crisis Preparedness Quotient is “Allies.” Being alone in a crisis — and I do believe Uber’s safety challenge is a survival-threatening crisis — is a very bad situation to be in.

Wisely, Uber partnered with the National Sexual Violence Resource Center and the Urban Institute to create  a classification system for its incident reporting and validate its findings. They are making this reporting protocol available to Lyft and other transportation companies to bring consistency to what is an industry-wide issue. In addition, Uber has formed an alliance with RALIANCE, “a national partnership dedicated to ending sexual violence in one generation,” and reached out to “more than 200 gender-based violence prevention experts — including the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence, and the National Network to End Domestic Violence — to innovate on new approaches that will raise the bar on safety in ridesharing.” 

Actions Speak Louder then Words

As we discuss in Chapter 12 of The Crisis Preparedness Quotient – Measuring Your Readiness to Weather a Reputational Storm (“The Five Rs of Crisis Response”), instituting serious reforms is needed to convince audiences that the bad things that are happening are not going to keep on happening.

Here again, Uber earns high marks. They’ve added an “Emergency Button” on the Uber app that immediately dials up 911 and they’ve strengthened the standards of background checks, which are now ongoing. “RideCheck” technology is in place to contact the rider if Uber’s monitoring systems “detect unexpected stops or possible accidents.” The Safety Report also identifies reforms still in the works:

  • New features that allow riders to verify their driver with a secure PIN code, send a text message directly to 911 operators, and report safety incidents to Uber before their trip is even over.
  • A feature to give drivers and riders the option to securely record audio during their trip as a safety precaution.
  • We’re also committed to sharing the names of drivers who have been banned from our platform for the most serious safety incidents with our ridesharing peers.

Uber is Leading, Not Just Responding

Competitor Lyft has promised to issue its own safety report in the near future. It will be interesting to see if they adopt Uber’s reporting incident classification system. My bet is they will follow Uber’s lead. And now reporters have a benchmark against which to put individual examples of violence or assault in context and perspective (Uber has promised to publish a report every two years). Much like every time a commercial airline experiences an accident, believable statistics are available to make a compelling case that travel by air is very safe.

By tackling this problem in such a comprehensive way, Uber is earning high praise from important organizations. Here’s what Cindy Southworth, Executive Director of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, says in the executive summary of the Safety Report: 

“Uber has emerged as a leading partner in standing against sexual assault – not just through accountability and transparency, but also by supporting survivors, eliminating barriers to reporting, and taking steps to prevent violence and harassment. We call on other companies to follow Uber’s lead by partnering with anti-violence organizations and releasing their own reports.” 

That’s impressive.

Speaking Honestly About a Problem Pays Dividends

In The Crisis Preparedness Quotient we discuss the negative consequences suffered by companies and organizations that hide or deny real problems. That strategy dramatically heightens the levels of anger and betrayal when, inevitably, bad things come to light. We witnessed that after Three Mile Island when the potential dangers of nuclear power, generally downplayed by the electric utility industry, were revealed, and after the long-festering pedophilia crisis within the Catholic Church leapt into the headlines.

By measuring and reporting its own safety incidents, Uber is far more in control of its destiny. Sure, the spotlight in the short term is on a problem. But over the long run, riders, drivers, municipalities and investors will digest bad news with more understanding and acceptance, and more readily embrace any improvements to the situation. In the company’s announcement of the Safety Report’s release, Uber’s Chief Legal Officer Tony West says it well:

“Confronting sexual violence requires honesty, and it’s only by shining a light on these issues that we can begin to provide clarity on something that touches every corner of society. And, most importantly, by bringing hard data to bear, we can make every trip safer for drivers and riders alike . . . The moment is now for companies to confront it, count it, and work together to end it.”

I wish Uber had stayed away from the unfortunate Richard Jeni-like statistical appeal at the front of its announcement. Yes, your chances of being killed or sexually assaulted during an Uber ride are just one in 122 million, but leave the insensitive mathematical analysis to reporters and investors. They have calculators right on their smart phones. On balance, Uber’s Safety Report initiative, along with all the good work that supports it, is an excellent example of proactive crisis management worthy of study by crisis communicators.

I rest my case.

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