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by GK Strategy 29th September, 2017
3 min read

The Case of Uber

The case of Uber’s licensing will have repercussions for organisations in heavily regulated industries, but not just because of the ban itself. GK has taken a closer look at the wider public affairs and communications elements underpinning the case.

Are regulators playing politics?

Amid the noise over the TfL decision, one story which has not been discussed at length is the revelation that Uber was repeatedly given a clean bill of health by TfL in 2017 before the sudden decision to ban it.

If, as has been reported, TfL gave no warnings to Uber of its concerns, refused to discuss the licensing process during 2017 and only notified the operator of its decision five minutes before the announcement, it begs the question, are regulators now playing politics?

That Uber successfully passed its annual compliance audit in April, only to then lose its license, may set alarm bells ringing about the unpredictable behaviour of UK regulators. There is a growing perception that they could be open to political pressure, at a time when many would say the UK needs to be attracting further competition, innovation and investment into its major cities.

It will also not have escaped many people’s attention that the loudest voices in cheering the decision were the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association, who have aggressively campaigned against Uber and have close ties to the current Labour-led GLA at City Hall. For them and for now, this is a hard-won lobbying battle, played out using a supposedly impartial regulator as a vehicle.

A flawless response

While the news of the decision was well documented, the nature of the announcement gives some indication of the total breakdown of the relationship between the popular operator and TfL. The immediate public response was one of horror, and Uber acted decisively to harness this to position itself well for the battles ahead.

Over the last six days, Uber has taken effective steps to put themselves on the front foot:

Step 1: Published a short media statement in response to the decision, immediately acting to reassure drives of their intention to appeal and make a clear statement about the message TfL are sending out about London as a global centre for business.

Step 2: Launched a petition. Any battle needs an army, and Uber knows too well that its customer base is its biggest weapon. Over 500,000 Londoners signed the petition in six hours. This sent a very clear message to the Mayor of London and TfL about where public support resided. If a politician is to survive, they must have the votes on side. This petition controlled the media narrative and put pressure on Sadiq Khan to urge TfL and Uber to reopen talks.

Step 3: Published a full-page letter in the Evening Standard, London’s most-read daily newspaper. The ultimate convergence between advertising and PR and the perfect way for Uber’s new CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, to introduce himself to the debate. Following TfL’s decision and the success of the petition, he thanked Londoners for their vocal support and reassured them of Uber’s commitment to appeal the decision, but crucially opened the door for dialogue, recognising that it needs to change.

The media narrative will continue to evolve, but there is little doubt who is controlling the debate. The lesson from this is to know your audience, know how to use it to your advantage, and to sequence communications to you put you in the best possible position.

How can firms mitigate the risk?

The decision has highlighted the need for firms to better understand the priorities of politically sensitive regulators and the future of policymaking.

But this trend is not new. Firms under the supervision of FCA regulation have experienced several cases where political ‘hot topics’ raised in parliament or to the media, and aligned to the policies of a particular party, are then investigated by the regulators.

Businesses should seek to understand the dynamics of their regulator and how they are influenced by the political process – in some cases their political masters. Innovators will run into trouble if their only approach is to plough on regardless and ‘lawyer-up’ when they are challenged – as has been the approach taken by Uber.

Clearly this comes at a cost. Building dialogue early with the influencers of this process should be considered of as an opportunity and treated as a priority, as these relationships will be the most important ones of all when the going gets tough.

 

For information on how we can support your corporate communications strategy get in touch with johnny or ned.

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