In the four years that it grew from a start-up to a company valued at $18 billion, car hailing service Uber's aggressive tactics have made the company a lot of enemies -- local regulators, taxi drivers and some journalists among them.
But no legal battle or protest caused the company as many public relations headaches as did a BuzzFeed report from this week that claimed that an Uber executive had floated the idea of hiring researchers to dig into the personal lives of journalists who had written critical articles about the company and that a general manager at Uber's New York City office had accessed a reporter's travel data without permission.
The comments, reportedly made by senior vice president for business Emil Michael at a New York dinner attended by BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith, ignited a powder keg of criticism about a company already perceived as cut-throat -- landing Uber on the front pages of The Washington Post, USA Today and the New York Times.
Sarah Lacy, the editor of Silicon Valley-based site PandoDaily who was reportedly singled out as a potential target for a research scheme, posted a scathing response to Michael's remarks. PandoDaily has been among Uber's harshest critics, with Lacy writing about her personal decision to delete the app and urging others to do so last month after reports of a promotion out of a French Uber office that promised attractive female drivers. Michael has since apologized to Lacy, and Uber chief executive Travis Kalanick called Michael's comments "terrible" in a series of Tweets on Tuesday.
The company insists Michael's comments did not reflect any program actually in place at Uber. But at least one company investor, actor Ashton Kutcher, tweeted his personal support for the scheme, implying that Lacy is a "shady" journalist.
Others were less than supportive of the company. Comedian John Hodgman publicly quit the service, announcing his decision to delete the app in a blog post. Some users who submitted requests for their accounts to be closed and the data associated with the accounts deleted were reportedly asked to reconsider with a message assuring them that the company did not and "will not" investigate journalists.
But the data privacy implications of an Uber employee accessing a journalist's ride data without her permission may loom larger over the company in the long term than Micheal's poorly thought-out dinner banter. It's data about users' locations, after all, that enables the company's service. But not all Uber customers may have thought through the implications of the highly personal data cache they have turned over to the company. Uber, however, is intimately aware -- in one 2012 blog post, the company boasted about being able to determine when likely overnight encounters occurred just by the timing and location of trips.
According to BuzzFeed, when reporter Johana Bhuiyan arrived at Uber's New York headquarters for an interview earlier this month, local general manager Josh Mohrer was waiting outside for her -- and gestured to his iPhone, telling Bhuiyan he was tracking her arrival. In an earlier e-mail exchange with the reporter, Mohrer e-mailed her logs of some of her own Uber trips. The reporter had not given him permission to access her travel data, BuzzFeed says.
The greatest irony of Uber's awful PR week is that it was actually triggered by the company's attempt to get in the good graces of the media. Perhaps stinging from reports that the company had ordered then canceled thousands of rides from competitor Lyft and that it was partnering with lenders to offer subprime vehicle loans to drivers, Uber has been on something of a charm offensive since hiring former Obama campaign strategist David Plouffe.
One tactic in this softer approach to media was hosting a series of background events with journalists. BuzzFeed's Smith was attending one such dinner as the guest of USA Today columnist Michael Wolff when the Uber esecutive suggested the company might investigate the personal lives of journalists -- but neither Wolff nor the hosts had apparently informed Smith of the off-the-record nature of the event.
In his own account of the evening, Wolff implied that Smith's motives in reporting the comments may have been skewed:
BuzzFeed itself — a financial play as much as Uber is — has key investors who are investors in Uber's main competitor, Lyft. Those investors are, too, investors in PandoDaily. Does this have any bearing at all on the cost of tea in China? I don't know. But I know that little in this world is what it seems.
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