When Uber hired onetime Obama whisperer David Plouffe, CEO Travis Kalanick wrote: "We are in the middle of a political campaign and it turns out the candidate is Uber. Our opponent -- the Big Taxi cartel -- has used decades of political contributions and influence to restrict competition, reduce choice for consumers, and put a stranglehold on economic opportunity for its drivers."
Translation: This is war, and we're going to use every weapon known to win.
So when I read that an Uber veep suggested that the ride services giant should spend a million bucks to hire four top opposition researchers and four journalists to dig up dirt on its critics in journalism, did I believe he meant what he said? Of course I did. That veep Emil Michael made the suggestion at a dinner with big shots in journalism and that dinner was supposed to punctuate Kalanick's "charm offensive" with the media, well, that's just dessert.
BuzzFeed's editor-in-chief, Ben Smith, reported Michael's remarks because, he said, no one -- including USA Today columnist Michael Wolff, who invited Smith -- had told him that dinner conversation was off the record. Earlier in the day, Uber had hosted a working session with journalists to beef up its image. That session was off the record, and explicitly so. Apparently, execs wanted to whisper and wink their way to good press among the troops and then wine and dine their more influential editors with ideas not meant to be linked to their precious personal brand.
What story angered Michael so much that he wanted to hire former journalists to smear present journalists? As the French say, cherchez la femme. PandoDaily Editor-in-Chief Sarah Lacy had written that she deleted the Uber app from her phone after she saw a promotional campaign touting hot French female Uber drivers -- aka avions de chasse. "Seat back, relax and let them take you on cloud 9!" the promotion purred.
"Women drive Ubers and ride in them. I don't know how many more signals we need that the company simply doesn't respect us or prioritize our safety," Lacy opined. Amen, sister.
Uber must have agreed, as the corporation, valued at more than $17 billion, scrubbed the promotion. Still, Michael apparently was so incensed at Lacy's reaction to Uber's playful promotion that he could not help but fantasize about destroying her reputation -- in front of an editor.
The episode is reminiscent of a campaign to carpet-bomb the district of California Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla when she was pushing a measure mandating liability insurance for ride services drivers. One mailer accused Bonilla of "leaving consumers and entrepreneurs on the curb while she takes a ride with her special interest friends."
Kalanick apologized on Twitter for what he called Michael's "terrible" remarks, saying they are not representative of Uber's positive spirit. The CEO also pledged to earn the public's trust. There's a small problem here. The infamous New York dinner was supposed to be the encore performance of an orchestrated campaign to spin the reputation of the Uber alecks so they no longer appear like arrogant hotshots who try to bully anyone who stands up to them.