The Stefanovic story: Where are Uber and New Idea’s PR crises?

As the Stefanovic tabloid tattle finally settles down, Gerry McCusker asks: how did New Idea and Uber get away without a PR crisis of their own?

When I contemplated penning an article on the Stefanovic/Uber PR disaster, I rubbed my hands in glee at seeing commentators having a PR pop at the worlds biggest kitty pimps and executive men-on-the-make.

By which I mean Uber, not the broadcast brothers.

I imagined critics having a go at Ubers alleged culture of brazen corporate opportunism, misguided staff and its patchy PR responses in managing such company mis-steps.

Personally, I found it sinister that an Uber driver may have recorded private conversations of their passengers to seek reward for passing on grubby digital files. Wasnt there an employee code of conduct, or a media policy or some kind of driver governance policing that kind of shiftiness?

Remember; its illegal to secretly record a private conversation in NSW. And Im pretty sure that recording and publishing private conversations is frowned upon Australia-wide.

Clearly, Uber had a big PR disaster on its hands, right? I mean, its staff were out of control. Again.

Whose crisis is it anyway?

Well, no. That message – or emphasis – wasnt at the core of the PR disaster narrative. Did Channel 9 miss an opportunity to shift the issue emphasis from gossipy celebrity eavesdropping to Ubers latest episode in operational malfeasance?

Most of the coverage Ive reviewed was how two – pretty recognisable – media Jack-the-Lads have all but managed to save their reputation (and jobs) by coming out with early apologies for dissingtheir Channel Nine co-workers Georgie Gardner, Richard Wilkins and a slew of station honchos.

But as with any issue management challenge, its often a question of what to say, who says what, how to say it and when to get the information out there.

Timing, in crises as in life, is critical.

Apologising too quickly?

Clearly, the tack of getting the regret word out in front of the tapes broadcast was a PR priority for Channel 9 and the bitchy brothers. Cop it sweet rather than endure death by a thousand cuts, was the likely thinking. Particularly so, if what was said was unseemly in our #timesup colleague harassment context.

Proactive crisis communication is often advocated if you dont want to play catchup with the media narrative by adopting a no comment, or slow comment methodology. So, it seems the brothers made direct apologies and amends to their media mates within the business, and then the station made sure mass media were briefed and knew that the brothers’ ‘sincerestapologies had been accepted. This was proactive and effective media management.

Plus, I think the brotherssheepishness was expressed well (from my casual content analysis), and the company PRs communicated an appropriate levity with the quip about only according the Uber driver a 1-star rating.

The phantom tapes

But then, New Idea revealed that the driver had been paid $50k only for hearsay recollections, but no tapes. Isnt that a huge PR disaster for NI if theyre in the business of splashing cash to any ride-share jockey who says they heard something unedifying in their vehicle?

Again… wasnt there an editorial policy, legal counsel or some other due diligence process checking for how to validate hearsay claims of celebrity carping in a cab? 

But no-one has judged or jostled New Idea for shonky chequebook journalism citing unreliable sources, nor for buying the tape that never was.

So with no taped proof, did the grim-faced Stefanovic brothers apologise too early? Not by my thinking they didnt. In crises, its rarely too early to genuinely express regret or simply say sorry. Its perhaps wrong to admit full culpability prematurely, but real apologies shouldnt be the hardest word, especially when the alleged offenderfully sobers up.

The driver of this crisis

And back to Uber. Isnt it a PR disaster for the firm when an employee lies about having taped customer conversations in the first place? (Note: some people remain convinced of the tapesexistence, so watch out for more explosivemedia coverage coming soon!)

But out early, too, with effective issue management messages, was Uber. The company acted to suspend the drivers app access and promised an investigation into the drivers breach of its Community Guidelines.

This crisis arc seemed alcohol-fuelled, ethics-compromised on several fronts and technology facilitated. Despite that, the brothers, the station and the ride-share brand handled their discreet PR malaise quite adeptly.

In so many modern crises, there has to be a fall guy or girl; a sacrificial lamb.

But rather than just grill the Stefanovics, couldnt New Idea cover its blushes and admit humiliation for its lapses in this tawdry tabloid tale?

Shouldnt Uber more effectively reprimand its staff and ensure the drivers personal contrition sees him return the $50k bounty to New Idea who, its now being claimed, he duped?

Maybe if the driver apologised to the brothers, the station, New Idea and his own employers, that tack may just see him avoid down-the-line legal action.

Then, itd almost be PR well played, all round.

Gerry McCusker is the founder and principal adviser of crisis simulation and training technology The Drill


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