Turns out that helping to manage a global logistics company is a bit more complicated than running a political campaign.
Just eight months ago, Uber hired former Obama adviser David Plouffe to turn the company's image around. The private car-hailing service was being battered in the media for its numerous public missteps, and a faceoff with taxicab incumbents had grown pretty nasty.
Now, however, Plouffe is being replaced by top Google executive Rachel Whetstone as senior vice president of policy and communications. Uber said Wednesday that Plouffe will adopt a different role with the company, taking a position on its board and becoming a strategic adviser rather than being involved with day-to-day operations. Plouffe will continue working full-time on a broad portfolio that includes business, legal and policy issues.
The sudden switch-up hints at how quickly Uber itself is evolving. When Plouffe came on board, Uber desperately needed a crisis communications team. Not long after he joined, BuzzFeed reported that the company was targeting journalists who'd criticized the firm. Plouffe began appearing on cable TV shows to tout "the good we're bringing to cities," and preparing academic-style studies linking Uber to decreases in drunk driving.
Since then, much of the public backlash against Uber appears to have eased, and it and other ridesharing companies have successfully pressed for friendlier regulations in more than a dozen states. But the company still faces significant regulatory hurdles in many places, particularly abroad. In South Korea, for instance, Uber chief executive Travis Kalanick was recently charged by police with operating an illegal service.
This is where Whetstone comes in. A powerful former adviser to Google's Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, Whetstone brings with her experience working for Google in Europe — one of the company's toughest regulatory environments.
Whetstone's arrival isn't just a blow to Google; it's an indication that Uber's struggles with government are far from over. If anything, the company just conceded that it needs even more firepower.