I’m wondering if bad press for a CEO, entrepreneur, or entire company really has any substantial affect on the business. My working theory is no, PR disasters matter very little compared to the quality of a company’s product. Of course, it depends on how you define “PR disaster,” but bear with me.
A few weeks ago Uber found itself in the news for some questionable activity. First, a #deleteuber campaign was sparked after the company attempted to service people at airports amid protests to President Trumps “travel ban.” This was subsequently followed by a lawsuit from Google, sexual harassment claims from female employees, and the release of an unflattering video of CEO Travis Kalanick. In the video, Kalanick can be seen arguing with an Uber driver who is disgruntled at the decrease in price and demand for uberBlack services. Most recently, one of Uber’s self-driving cars was involved in an accident, which caused them to suspend their testing.
But, despite a rough beginning to 2017, Uber appears relatively unscathed. Of course, that’s mostly conjecture, as Uber isn’t obligated to publish numbers like a publicly traded company is, but there don’t seem to be any observable consequences. Uber self-driving cars are back on the roads and I’m willing to guess any “protestors” who deleted their Uber phone app have redownloaded it by now.
But, in contrast to my general impression that Uber is growing/stronger than ever, there is some data showing that Lyft, an alternative rideshare service, is gaining in market share.
When thinking of PR disasters, or what should have been one, Mark Zuckerberg comes to mind. In 2013 some messages sent by Zuckerberg while he was at Harvard surfaced revealing a disturbing view on privacy. In the relevant conversation, Zuckerberg appeared to be bragging to a friend about all the information students at Harvard had freely offered him, and then he called them “dumb f**ks” for doing so.
I found this conversation deeply troubling at the time, and still do, but I, alongside nearly everyone else in the world, continued to use Facebook. More recently, Facebook successfully brushed aside a “fake news” problem and allegations of left-leaning censorship.
As further support, think of Coca-Cola’s colorful history, Nike’s abuse use of cheap labor, or the fact that Foxconn, a manufacturer of Iphones, put suicide nets up on the sides of its buildings. These all seem like PR nightmares that should have negatively impacted a company, right?