It's been a bad month for some tech CEOs in Silicon Valley, most particularly Uber CEO Travis Kalanick.
When we last checked in with the always pugnacious leader of the car-hailing company, he was getting shaken down by the the mayor of Pittsburgh, seeing accidents and regulators plague his troubled self-driving car efforts and getting tsk-tsked for taking some Uber employees to an escort bar in South Korea.
In all fairness, if you actually wanted to be fair about this kind of thing, it turns out to be a not uncommon thing for tech execs visiting Asia to do. This obviously sucks, especially for staffers who have to attend and don't feel comfortable about it, like the female Uber employee who complained to HR about that visit. And while I am not trying to make a molehill out of a mountain — and this is most certainly one of the many big and ugly pinnacles of sexism — I was on the receiving end of a million people telling me their escort bar tales in the last two weeks.
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But since this was Kalanick as the protagonist, it's 150 percent ickier and another public mess that is part of the continuing reverberations after a series of firings and departures related to issues of sexism and sexual harassment and what sounds like epically dysfunctional management systems at the much-funded startup.
There was also the #deleteuber meme, the unfortunate back and forth with whether to be part of President Donald Trump's advisory council and — lest we forget — Kalanick starring in a video made by a disgruntled driver, in which he looked like the d-bro most people imagine him to be.
He got jiggy, he got piggy, he got wiggy.
Which is why I joked on CNBC earlier this week that if Travis saved a kitten from a tree these days, he'd be accused of animal abuse. I was kidding, obvi, as I was when I had earlier suggested to an Uber investor that the CEO should be locked in a room and not allowed to do anything but order in from UberEats for at least eight weeks.
"If the PR were better, it wouldn't be like this," was the response. I would have been dumbfounded had I not already heard it three other times before that from others inside and outside Uber — this cockamamie notion that the messed-up communications around all these disasters was the real problem ailing Uber.
One person suggested that hiring an outside crisis PR firm — those pros that come in when the situation gets too hot — would fix things stat. "They'd know what to do," he said, as if there was some magic bullet to shoot that would kill off all the bad.
Another claimed that there should be no statements at all from the company, so that it would all blow over sooner. He even complimented another Uber investor and board member Bill Gurley for not saying anything at all publicly about the problems, despite the venture capitalist's well-known proclivity to give stern public lectures about a range of shortcomings by other startups. But is Silent Bill the kind of symbol of rectitude we need right now? No, he is not.
And the third exec? He said that the best thing for Uber would be to be Uber again — no more PR-engineered public apologizing and get back to what got the company so big in the first place. Which is to say, overweening aggression. Which, I might add, is what got the company into trouble in the first place.
"It's a PR problem, with the media piling on," said this person. "And PR can fix it. Let Uber be Uber"
Let's not let it, shall we?
It's moments like these that I am not entirely sure I live in a real adult place called Silicon Valley anymore. Instead, when I hear such elaborate justifications, it feels like it is increasingly becoming an environment that abrogates responsibility for actual actions that have actual consequences.