The Uber Scandal and Rebounding From a Bad Boy Reputation

I was never one of those women who fell for “bad boys.” I didn't like them then and I definitely don't like them now. But bad boys are a part of the media and tech landscape, and the challenge for many of us is: how do we deal with them?

June has been the month of high-profile mess-ups, from Bill Maher’s dropping of the n-bomb on live TV to Uber CEO, Travis Kalanick’s multi-layered missteps. Both are examples of PR disasters, costing brands their reputations and millions of dollars. But the real question here is: are some people/brands irredeemable? Is there a point where you have so damaged your reputation that there is no path to recovery? When does the redemption narrative work, and when does it not?

This week, Uber announced Kalanick’s leave of absence, which also coincided with several, high-profile, company-wide Uber scandals. There was the video of Kalanick yelling at an Uber driver, the bombshell blogpost by former software engineer Susan. S. Flower alleging that her sexual harassment complaints were ignored by the company, and then the unsavory findings of Eric Holder’s investigation of the company, recommending the dismissal of 20 employees effective immediately.

Bad behavior can give you an entirely new branding dilemma, one that often overshadows your business: that of a bad boy image. In the ‘90s and early ‘00s, that image was considered edgy and desirable. People like Aaron Levie, Mark Zuckerberg, and Shane Smith profited off the idea of being rebellious, lone-wolves disrupting their industry. Now, in 2017, being a bad boy is more of a liability than an asset. With calls for inclusion, firings at FOX News for sexual harassment, and the noted problems facing women in tech, consumers and investors are distancing themselves from brands that can’t or won’t adapt to the times.

So if being branded as a bad boy is toxic these days, can Uber correct its course or have they already lost the faith of their customers and investors?

The tech world might want to look at pop culture icons for some do’s and don’ts in bad boy rehabilitation.

The Apology

The first lesson we learned was from Bill Maher: a non-apology is not an apology. If you can’t admit to any wrongdoing, or provide a plan of action to change your behavior, have you actually apologized? Common mistakes when making public apologies include: not taking responsibility for your actions, deflecting, and not making amends with the community or people who you have injured.

In the case of Bill Maher, his apology received a C- response from critics and his viewers. The New Yorker deemed his actions as an “apology tour.” When invited to appear on Maher’s show, rapper and actor Ice Cube stated on-air, "I knew you was gon' f*** up sooner or later," before going on to explain that the reason the word felt like a “knife” to the Black community was because it reflected a pattern of behavior, and reaffirmed the idea that white folks have the right to refer to Black people however they want, regardless of impact.

Ice Cube made a central point, which is that apologies are not accepted when your audience does not believe change is possible. And, in order to be redeemable, you have to pay a certain price. That price might be a leave of absence, “soul-searching,” or community involvement. But contrition is not believable if you don’t have a history of integrity behind you.

Rehabilitation

After a proper apology you need to rehabilitate your image, to reset, and create a story where people can root for you and believe in the “new you” or “changed man”.

A real life example of a “comeback king,” comes from the unlikeliest of places: Justin Bieber. After enjoying the status of being a teen idol for years, the Biebs became persona non grata after a series of bratty displays of awfulness and arrogance. There was the time he wrote that Anne Frank would be a “belieber” in the guest book of the Anne Frank House and his physical attack of a photographer in London. The Biebs seemed to be on the brink of a downward spiral.

And then, a new Biebs was born.

Biebs had a “come to Jesus moment,” quite literally, returning to his boy next door, Christian roots and thanking God and his fans regularly for his success. He sang “I Could Sing of Your Love Forever,” at a concert during his On the Purpose Tour, before speaking about his relationship to religion regularly in interviews and even getting a new cross tattoo.

As for partying, he laid low to avoid negative press. And, he began collaborating with respected musicians and producers, and gaining clout as a result. He worked with Diplo, Chance the Rapper, DJ Khaled, and most recently, his #1 hit collaboration, with Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee, “Despacito.”

Now, nobody can escape Bieber’s reach. For better or for worse, “Despacito” is playing in the restaurants, cars, coffee shops, clubs, and every single Spotify playlist that inevitably finds you. In fact, at the moment, Bieber has two collaborations in the top 5 spot on the Billboard charts.

Sometimes, the price that a “bad boy” has to pay to redeem himself is not in money, but in time and authenticity. In an age that idealizes radical transparency, the most radical act you can do is to reveal --not cover-up-- the truth, and to live by the ideals you espouse. Is it any coincidence that Bieber’s comeback in 2015 started with his single that’s a simple and explicit apology, “I’m Sorry?”

Photo Credit: Flickr: Travis Kalanick LeWeb Day 1 - Dan Taylor/Heisenberg Media

Lesley Gold | Jun 2017

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