PR experts warn Uber kitten stunt could come back to bite the company

uberkittySenior PR managers have questioned Uber’s latest publicity drive which has seen the ride sharing firm offer kittens on demand to several locations – a move which has garnered significant attention on social media.

It comes as the company has battled several high profile PR blunders in recent months, including being forced to apologise for surge pricing during the Sydney siege incident, continued questions around the legality of the Uber X service in Australia, as well as unwise remarks from a senior executive about tracking journalists.

This morning the company announced the kittens would be available between 12pm and 4pm in six locations around Australia , with people able to order 15 minutes of cuddles for $40 – cash which then goes to selected rescue shelters.

However, when approached for comment James Wright, group MD Havas Worldwide Australia and also MD of Red Agency and Havas PR Asia-Pacific, said he was surprised the publicity stunt which was already used in the US had been rolled out in the local market.

“They have bigger public perception problems to address, I don’t think it can be solved with fluff and guff around spoiling kittens,” he said.“It’s a very noble cause but I would like to know what the strategy is around this; I mean what do kittens have to do with a taxi service other than generating a positive story?”

The Red Agency also represents the Australian Taxi Industry Association in Brisbane.

The move has also angered some animal rights activists, with people taking to social media to question whether it is cruel to the cats. However, Uber has argued the move is helping them to rehouse cats in need of adoption, and has put several security questions in place to ensure they only visit suitable premises.

The Uber app is showing a lack of availability of the kitten option

The Uber app is showing a lack of availability of the kitten option

In order to access the service people have to download the Uber app and request a “kitten” from the menu. However, demand for the service has seen the company warn “you’ll have to be lucky to find available kittens”.

The hashtag #Uberkittens has also been trending all day on Twitter.

Ogilvy PR media director Sam North said the idea could come back to bite the company. “It’s cute, but it seems expensive,” he said.

“As an idea it’s not bad, but it runs the risk of backfiring because Uber has had a lot of adverse publicity first of all in a regulatory sense and then secondly a lot of bad PR around it’s model of pricing, which was seen in the number of stories about it seemingly taking advantage of people during the Sydney siege – a lot of money to get out of the city which left a bad taste in a lot of people’s mouths”, he said.

The company announced the local kitty program via a blog post this morning without warning.

“Following the huge success of UberKITTENS in the US, we were inundated with requests from riders and some amazing local shelters to bring it to our shores so we could share the kitten love and spread the word about the importance of finding much needed homes for our furry friends,” the post stated.

Wright said the move showed poor judgement on Uber’s part in assessing the conditions of the local market.

“This is a another occasion where I think they may have misjudged the mood of the nation and whilst people are willing to forget, they very rarely forgive,” he said.

“I just hope that the brand understands that going out with something like this – there is a likelihood that there will be some fallout, that people will be upset and see this as a publicity stunt when there’s actually a huge amount of negativity towards them.

“Already on social media circles you can see a lot of people calling this a publicity stunt and I think coming off the back of the Sydney Siege and surge pricing, I would have liked to see a little bit more of a serious community program instead of waving all the flags of how showcasing how fantastic this kind of fluffy idea is.

According to North, the cat play was unlikely to resolve the company’s image problems.

“It’s no doubt an attempt to take that bad taste out of people’s mouth and it will certainly get them publicity. But really, it’s a distraction, it doesn’t publicise the actual business.”

However not everyone thought the kitten idea was a bad one. Ava Lawler from Weber Shandwick said she didn’t see the move as having a connection to the companies broader publicity issues.

“We love it we think it’s a great idea, as long as they have the protections in place to keep the kittens safe I don’t see where the harm is.” she said.

“I would say they have a more serious strategy for regulatory issues and other things confronting their business so I wouldn’t see this as impacting positively or negatively.

“I see it as a stream of activity that in many ways builds up the brand values as an organisation that is fun and accessible and is secondly contributing to the community a large in a way that is relevant to people – you know how big kittens are on the internet.”

An Uber spoksperson declined to discuss the Sydney Siege surge pricing scandal but said they hoped the kittens would find homes.

“The aim of the campaign is to help spread awareness for the important cause of pet adoption and we are excited to partner with local shelters to do this. In doing so, we’re able to bring kittens in need of homes to people who might not have ever considered adoption before.

“When you adopt, you’re saving a life.  We hope this event will encourage many adoptions,” she said.

Whilst the move has garnered several articles on online news sites it has only been mentioned on one mainstream broadcaster, Melbourne’s 3AW, this morning by Breakfast host Neil Mitchell, according to analysis from iSentia.

Disclosure: The Red Agency represents the Australian Taxi Industry Association in Brisbane, a relationship inherited through its tie-up with Graymedia last year.

Robert Burton-Bradley


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