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Uber’s media revenge fiasco: What went wrong and how to fix it

Ride sharing taxi service and Silicon Valley darling Uber is currently under scrutiny after one of its senior executives was overheard floating the idea of hiring opposition researchers to dig into the private lives of journalists who have criticized the company.

If you’re a corporate executive and you’re watching this public relations fiasco unfold, here are three immediate things you should take away from this mess.

1. There is no such thing as “off the record”

Uber senior vice president Emil Michael made the comments at a dinner in New York last Friday. According to news website BuzzFeed, which first revealed the comments, Michael thought the dinner was “off the record.” Journalist Michael Wolff, who had invited BuzzFeed to the dinner, later said he had failed to communicate to BuzzFeed that the dinner was off the record.

But none of that really matters.

For everyone in business, there is a simple rule: in the current media world, there really is no such thing as “off the record” any more.

Once upon a time, of course, there was. But that was in the days when, for example, every White House correspondent knew about Jack Kennedy’s womanizing and not one of them thought to put it in the paper. Those days of cozy clubs and smoke-filled rooms are long gone.

These days, the media are involved in a brutal and vicious fight for survival. Professional journalists with actual salaries and paid vacation are being replaced by unpaid interns. Everyone is fighting for eyeballs. BuzzFeed, by breaking this story, has scored a big win. You cannot rely on the old rules.

2. Never say anything in private that’s indefensible in public

Okay, so I have plenty of conversations with sources on background and they don’t get quoted by name. But there is context. We establish civilized rules for civilized conversations. For example, money managers need to be careful about how they are quoted by the press so they do not violate regulations. A money manager who likes Widgets, Inc. and who owns a lot of the stock in his portfolio is not allowed to tell me, a consenting adult, that he likes Widgets, Inc. But everyone benefits when these people can speak to me about it without attribution. I can write more informed commentary for my readers and they don’t get in trouble.

Now, if a money manager told me he was supplementing his income by selling narcotics to children, I would probably feel honor-bound to print the story (or, I suppose, tell the police).

Emil Michael didn’t merely talk about harmless “opposition research” into critical journalists, like trawling Lexis-Nexis looking for anything awkward in their past articles. That’s been done to me, and to many journalists, and it made me laugh.

Instead, Michael, according to reports that have not been denied, floated the idea of spending a million bucks digging into the private life of Sarah Lacy, a journalist at PandoDaily. Writes Buzzfeed: “Uber’s dirt-diggers, Michael said, could expose Lacy. They could, in particular, prove a particular and very specific claim about her personal life.”

This is so far beyond the Pale that there is no reason to dispute it.

Emil Michael, in a statement, said the remarks were “borne out of frustration during an informal debate” and “do not reflect my actual views and have no relation to the company’s views or approach.” This is a lame response. If he didn’t mean it, why did he say it?

(I’m always baffled when people say that their comments do not reflect their views. Was he joking? Was he illustrating a hypothetical? If so, he should say so.)

3. Act quickly

Uber has fluffed this incident, and badly. CEO Travis Kalanick has attempted to douse the firestorm with a string of Tweets denouncing the remarks.

It’s nowhere near adequate. It’s hard to see why the company didn’t fire Emil Michael.

I have no idea how well he does his job. He may be brilliant. He may even be a very nice person. I know nothing about him. But absolutely no executive is indispensable, and Michael’s comments are both indefensible and a serious threat to Uber’s reputation.

Uber could have dealt with this decisively through a dismissal, and surely should have.

Bear in mind, according to BuzzFeed, Michael made his remarks at a dinner in New York attended by an editor of BuzzFeed, Arianna Huffington, Michael Wolff, the actor Ed Norton, and heaven knows who else.

Anyone who makes comments like his in company like that deserves little sympathy. It is astonishing—and outrageous, frankly—that other media figures in attendance participated in covering up his remarks.

Uber is already under fire for alleged assaults on female passengers by drivers. It should not be surprising that one of the biggest risks to their business is that women, in particular, will not feel safe in the company’s hands. If Travis Kalanick doesn’t know that, then the company has even more serious problems.