When foreign markets resisted, Uber launched a media charm offensive

To get past a hostile German taxi industry, the company courted a major tabloid newspaper and got its parent company to invest.

(Lucy Naland/Washington Post illustration; Ben Margot/AP; Rolf Vennenbernd/Picture-Alliance/DPA/AP; Uber screenshots; iStock)
17 min

Uber’s global ambitions came up against a major obstacle in September 2015: Its path into the lucrative German market was slowed by unfavorable legal rulings and resistance from the powerful taxi industry. But one executive had an idea to win over the leaders of Europe’s biggest economy.

“They have a problem, and we have a solution,” Ryan Graves, senior vice president of global operations, wrote in an email to his colleagues.

Germany’s problem was that hundreds of thousands of unemployed Syrian refugees were scrambling for a foothold in the country. Uber’s proposed solution? Hire them as Uber drivers. “There is no job that can scale faster than being an Uber driver,” Graves wrote.

His colleague, Rachel Whetstone, seemed to like the idea. She proposed an unusual strategy for advancing Uber’s interests — and suggested enlisting the help of Bild, Germany’s most popular tabloid newspaper, to overcome the expected political hurdles.

“Bild is the best route to get this done and get to Merkel,” she wrote in an email, referring to the country’s chancellor at the time, Angela Merkel.

Ultimately, the bold refugee-hiring plan never saw the light of day. Yet within months, Uber had nonetheless invited the German publishing conglomerate that owns Bild to claim a piece of its world-conquering vision as a $5 million strategic investor.

The conversation about Germany, revealed within a trove of more than 124,000 leaked internal documents from Uber, is a window into the aggressive global influence campaign that was the company’s strategy for powering its way into skeptical local markets around the world.

Read key takeaways from the Uber Files investigation

In a concerted effort to influence international politicians, regulators and thought leaders — at a time when the company faced legal challenges and local bans — Uber underwrote academic research that positioned its gig driver service as an economic mobility engine. And it invited media owners to invest in Uber, in hopes of enlisting them to make high-level connections and spread a favorable message.

“Having [Bild parent company Axel] Springer on our side is very valuable if we are to make progress in Germany,” Whetstone wrote in one of the emails. “I believe they will actually do things proactively to help.”

The Guardian obtained the documents, called the Uber Files, and shared them with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, a nonprofit newsroom in Washington, D.C. that helped lead the project, and dozens of other partners worldwide, including The Washington Post.

Mark MacGann, former top executive, comes forward as Uber Files leaker

The deal with Axel Springer — whose U.S. holdings now include Politico and Insider — resembled one that Uber struck a year earlier in India, during an emergency campaign to repair its image after a driver raped a passenger in 2014. Uber pursued and secured a $16 million investment from the digital arm of the Times of India group, which included a “commercial marketing arrangement,” the company said at the time of the 2015 deal.

Other media investors who bought stakes in Uber included Lord Rothermere, who owns the Daily Mail in Britain; Ashley Tabor-King, founder of the largest commercial radio group in Europe; Bernard Arnault, CEO of luxury goods giant LVMH, which is the parent company of French financial daily Les Echos; and Carlo de Benedetti, publisher of Italian newsweekly L’Espresso — whom Uber executives asked to help make a connection for founder and former chief executive Travis Kalanick with then-Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi in 2015, according to emails. (De Benedetti acknowledged hosting several of the company’s executives for dinner at his house in Rome that year but said that “I never made lobbying operations with them or anybody else.”)

Uber’s aggressive approach to media partnerships was a hallmark of the company’s strategy as it expanded under the leadership of Kalanick. Mark MacGann, a former top lobbyist for Uber who worked on establishing these partnerships, said that every one of the company’s investment rounds carved out space for “strategic” investors.

“This meant people or entities that had demonstrable political influence in their home countries, whether it was oligarchs in Russia, media groups in Germany and Spain, luxury and telecom tycoons in France, captains of industry in Italy,” the former executive said. “We didn’t really need the money, we believed we were doing them a favor by taking their money, because we wanted the top-level political access and influence that came with the money.”

Jill Hazelbaker, Uber’s senior vice president of marketing and public affairs, said the company behaved like many other start-ups in seeking “strategic investors who could help us understand certain markets and grow our business.” They included media companies, she said, but “we never presumed that we would receive favorable coverage — in fact, it’s fair to say we have received lots of critical coverage from all of the outlets … many, many times.”

Malte Wienker, a spokesperson for Axel Springer, said that its $5 million investment was “economically insignificant” for both companies, amounting to about 0.01 percent of Uber’s value and less than 0.1 percent of Axel Springer’s equity interests over the past 10 years. Wienker added that the company’s editorial divisions work independently of its business side and that “we fail to recognize the one-sided, overly friendly reporting on Uber that you imply.”

Uber’s Hazelbaker said that the Axel Springer investment was public, and that “any advertising space given by Axel Springer was clearly declared as such according to their standards” and that to Uber’s knowledge, “there was at no time editorial content influenced or altered” by the company.

In a statement, Devon Spurgeon, a spokeswoman for Kalanick, noted that he and his team “pioneered an industry that has now become a verb” but that “to do this required a change of the status quo, as Uber became a serious competitor in an industry where competition had been historically outlawed.”

Uber’s first ventures into many European countries in the early 2010s drew vocal opposition from taxi associations, which accused the company of violating local labor laws and undercutting the taxi industry’s competitiveness by offering subpar wages to Uber drivers, many of whom were immigrants.

In the summer of 2014, more than 10,000 taxi drivers across Europe and Britain took to the streets to protest Uber, which had by then expanded to more than 100 cities in 45 countries. In response, Uber repeatedly circulated a statement casting its car-dispatch service as a “truly revolutionary innovation” that, like other disruptive businesses, faced “stiff opposition from incumbents and rearguard actions by regulators.”

Uber leveraged violent attacks against its drivers to pressure politicians

In Germany, Uber was hit that fall with a fine of 250,000 euros after it continued operating in violation of a Berlin court’s order to stop operating two of its services. But Kalanick insisted to colleagues that the fine “does not bother me in the least,” according to emails, and urged the company’s representatives in Germany to “do what is possible to keep building the business and fighting the fight.”

Embarking on a public relations charm offensive is a well-worn strategy for ambitious start-ups, said Matt Stoller, who studies the political and economic impact of big technology companies at the American Economic Liberties Project.

“If you are trying to lose money until you acquire market power, your core competency, at least for a period of time, is storytelling,” he said.

Early in 2015, Kalanick made plans to meet with Bild Editor in Chief Kai Diekmann and Axel Springer chief executive Mathias Döpfner, documents show.

Later, another Uber executive, Fabien Nestmann, the company’s western Europe public policy chief, suggested in an email that Uber partner with “someone like Bild” in a community-service gesture toward refugees. It launched in five German cities in early September 2015. “BILD REFUGEE CAMPAIGN: “WE HELP” blared a headline on one such effort. “Taxi service Uber picks up your donation,” the Bild headline, on an article that began, “Bild helps refugees. And this is how you can help too!” It urged readers to use the Uber app to beckon a car that would pick up donations of food, clothing and other goods and ferry them to relief organizations serving the influx of refugees.

But Whetstone — a powerful public relations executive married to former British prime minister David Cameron’s policy guru Steve Hilton — had bigger ideas.

In the September 2015 email exchange in which her colleagues dreamed about a massive refugee-employment program, she expressed an eagerness to gain the support of Diekmann. A consultant hired by Uber had previously identified the Bild editor as “one of the single most powerful figures in German media” who had “single handedly forced the last President from office,” according to internal messages. Whetstone expressed optimism that Diekmann could help cinch the high-level connections and introductions that Uber sought — although that would have been a highly unconventional and ethically fraught role for a journalist to play.

Whetstone also attempted to recruit the Bild editor in chief into a top job at Uber in November 2015, according to documents. Instead, though, Diekmann stayed with Axel Springer, winning a promotion at the end of the year to become the publisher of Bild.

In late 2015, Uber executives exchanged messages about the possibility of Axel Springer making an investment. At the time, an invitation to invest in Uber was a rare and valuable commodity. The company’s fast growth was the stuff of hyperventilating headlines and CEO envy, especially among media company leaders who wanted to shed their hidebound reputations and present themselves as digital visionaries.

Whetstone wrote in an email to colleagues that a partnership with Axel Springer would be especially welcome, as “they have traditionally been somewhat close” to the powerful taxi industry. “So anything we could do to work with them would be great.”

Fraser Robinson, who oversaw Uber’s business development in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, replied that “the key value here would be their support and influence in Germany and Brussels. They claim to have done a lot to help Airbnb with policy in Germany and are going to send examples.”

Axel Springer made its investment in Uber in early 2016, according to internal company emails, and announced the deal in April 2017.

According to documents, at the time the two entities had discussed the deal in terms of a relatively small $5 million investment of “media + cash.” What form exactly the “media” would take was not spelled out in the emails.

Axel Springer’s Wiekner said that “media” didn’t include editorial coverage but simply meant giving free advertising space in the company’s publications.

Documents suggest that Uber executives anticipated that it would also mean high-level introductions in Germany.

In the spring of 2016, Uber made a more formal bid to hire Diekmann, according to internal company messages and a person familiar with the discussion, offering him a top communication job, but he turned it down.

As they were closing their deal, Axel Springer offered to introduce Kalanick to policymakers at an Axel Springer-sponsored conference in Berlin in June 2016 — letting it be known that Merkel had been the company’s guest at another summit just the previous day.

Kalanick took them up on the offer, taking a seat onstage at the Berlin conference alongside Dieter Zetsche, the chief executive of the automotive conglomerate then known as Daimler AG — now the Mercedes-Benz Group — where both were interviewed by Diekmann on “the future of mobility and what place trends such as connected or self-driving cars will have in this future.” There was no public mention of Axel Springer investment in Uber, nor was there any reference to Diekmann’s recent flirtation with going to work for Uber.

The event generated buoyant headlines. Business Insider: “Uber’s CEO is so confident in his company that he’s let his driver’s license expire.” The Star newspaper of Malaysia: “Now roughly equal in value, Uber and Daimler trade gentle blows.” Insider: “Uber’s CEO rocked up to a German tech conference in a Trabant.” Fortune: “Travis Kalanick Says Don’t Expect an Uber IPO For a Very Long Time.” Afterward, Kalanick and Zetsche attended a private dinner at Diekmann’s home, according to internal company emails.

Hazelbaker said that Uber was just one of many participating companies in the conference. Zetsche said that there was a “benefit for the Mercedes brand” in sharing a stage with Uber, noting “the young audience and a certain coolness factor,” though he was not aware of any financial relationship between Uber and Axel Springer. “Certainly I didn’t see the event in that light.”

A year later, after he left Axel Springer, Diekmann joined Uber’s advisory board in Germany. In that capacity, he counseled Uber’s communications team for how to shape media coverage — including in Germany, where his former newsroom, Bild was a key player.

Diekmann says there was no conflict of interest between his role as a newspaper publisher and the efforts he made for Uber. His role at Axel Springer, he said in a statement, was to gather ideas and establish tech world contacts “to further advance digitalization at Bild and the company in general. This was about picking up the ‘spirit,’ about understanding and networking to accelerate the strategic and cultural transformation that was already in motion.” Both Diekmann and Hazelbaker said that his consulting work for Uber began only after he left Axel Springer.

Whetstone, now an executive at Netflix, left Uber in the spring of 2017. “I consistently pushed back on Uber’s more aggressive business practices — which were established well before my arrival — with some success but resigned after eighteen months due to significant, ongoing concerns about the company’s culture.”

It’s an open question what Uber’s bold public-relations goals accomplished in Germany. After being hit with more violations and fines for using drivers who had not obtained the proper license to transport passengers, Uber pulled out of three German cities. Although the company said at the time it would continue to offer limousine services and employ licensed taxi drivers, it has always continued to be hampered by restrictions to its business in the country.

Uber also sought to strike an alliance with a powerful media partner in India.

After the 2014 rape of a passenger — a case that drew international media attention, and resulted in the driver being convicted and sentenced to life in prison — the Indian government banned Uber cars from the streets of Delhi for operating without proper permits. Indian officials also faulted the company’s background check system for allowing the perpetrator to drive despite a previous history of sexual assault.

Uber’s immediate plan was to go silent. The company was “deliberately not briefing the press of this situation because the situation is dynamic/fluid,” Ben Novick, then an Uber communications manager in Europe, wrote in an email at the time, “and we do not want to give a running commentary until we agree our next legal steps.”

But Uber was making an exception to grant an interview to a local newspaper with whom the company had a strong relationship. Novick wrote that Uber would talk to the Times of India “to tackle some of the misconceptions in the media about the case.”

Later, Kalanick exchanged a series of emails with his top deputies who were trying to plan a February 2015 India trip for him — the purpose of which was to “get Delhi back live” and “thus not have that ‘ban’ cloud,” as an Uber general manager based in Asia wrote. (The company restarted its service in Delhi in late January even though the government ban was still in place.)

The manager wrote that he planned to set up meetings for Kalanick with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and cabinet officials as well as court local investors. Kalanick, though, emphasized that one priority for the trip should be to preserve Uber’s relationship with the Times of India, the far-reaching media conglomerate that has been owned by the well-connected Jain family for decades.

Weeks earlier, an editor within the Times’s family of publications had invited Kalanick to join a panel discussion on “new regulations for new-economy companies” at its January 2015 Global Business Summit — a chance, the editor promised, for Kalanick to meet key government officials and business leaders and help set the agenda for policy formulation. Though Kalanick ultimately decided not to travel to India because of the continuing controversy over the rape case, he told his executives that he was “down to go above and beyond” for the Times of India group, according to the documents.

“If there is something we can do for them that makes sense, we should do it,” Kalanick wrote.

The next month, the company announced a “strategic partnership” with Times Internet, the digital arm of the Times of India Group, which “centered around a commercial marketing arrangement accompanied by a small investment,” Uber said in a company statement.

According to data from venture capital industry researcher PitchBook, the investment was for $16 million. Times Internet said at the time that the deal was part of an investment initiative that had previously invested in HuffPost and Gawker Media, aiming “to help the best companies in the world succeed in India.” Later that year, Bennett Coleman & Company, the owner of the Times of India, invested an undisclosed amount in yet another Uber funding round.

In May 2015, David Plouffe, a top White House adviser under President Barack Obama who had joined Uber as a senior vice president, gave an interview to the Times of India that was published under the headline: “Uber is growing because people know it is safe.”

Sivakumar Sundaram, chairman of the executive committee of Bennett Coleman, said in a statement that Times Internet made its own investment decisions independently of its parent company. He denied that the company made connections for Uber “with any form of political access or promoting changes in legislation/regulation.” And he added that a corporate firewall within the Times Group kept the business side from influencing editorial decisions.

In July 2015, a judge ruled that it was legal for Uber to resume operations in Delhi while it sought a license from city officials.

Douglas MacMillan, Alice Crites, Petra Blum of WDR, and Felicity Lawrence of the Guardian contributed to this report.

Read the investigation: The Uber Files

The Uber Files is an international investigation into the ride-hailing company’s aggressive entrance into cities around the world — while frequently challenging the reach of existing laws and regulations. Documents illuminate how Uber used stealth technology to thwart regulators and law enforcement and how the company courted prominent political leaders, Russian oligarchs and media conglomerates as it sought footholds outside the United States.

The project is based on more than 124,000 emails, text messages, memos and other records that a former top lobbyist for Uber, Mark MacGann, provided to the Guardian. It shared the material with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which helped lead the project, and dozens of other news organizations, including The Washington Post.

Read more from the investigation:

Key takeaways from the Uber Files

Uber leveraged violent attacks against its drivers to pressure politicians

Former top executive, Mark MacGann, comes forward as source of Uber Files

‘Hit the kill switch’: Regulators entered Uber’s offices only to see computers go dark before their eyes

Uber promised South Africans better lives but knew drivers risked debt and danger

As Uber steamrolled into France, Emmanuel Macron was a ‘true ally’