Uber Swaps Brass Knuckles for Soft Handshakes in Local Lobbying

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Ride-hailing service Uber isn’t exactly known for using the word “diplomacy” very much. In fact, since its launch in 2009, it has been basically shoving its way into new markets, local regulations be damned.

That has worked to a certain extent so far—if you don’t mind a whole lot of legal action and bad press. But someone has apparently whispered in the ear of Uber founder Travis Kalanick, and he’s been singing a different tune recently.

The New York Times, taking note of Kalanick’s keynote speech at the Digital Life Design (DLD 2015) conference in Germany last month, sees a softer, gentler Uber emerging—at least in the public sphere—as it aims to get smarter about how it expands its brand locally.[more]

Kalanick told the digerati at DLD that he came bearing an olive branch for European regulators, and he aims to “make 2015 the year where we establish partnerships with new European cities.” He also noted how Uber would like to come to agreements with regulators—words that once seemed foreign to his public character.

Not everyone’s convinced it’s sincere, however. “Unless they examine the costs as well as the rewards of this kind of reflexive pugnacious stance, they run the risk of having the carpet pulled out from underneath them, regardless of the quality of their service,” Derek van Bever, a director of the Forum for Growth and Innovation at Harvard Business School, told the New York Times.

Last week, in another bid to reassure regulators that it has consumers’ best interests at heart, Uber said it aims to make its user data privacy practices much stronger, saying, “We haven’t always gotten it right,” the Times reports. Again, not words many would have predicted coming from the once brass-knuckled Uber.

This shift in attitude may be partially driven by Uber’s new Senior Vice President for Policy and Strategy, David Pfouffe, one of President Obama’s longtime right-hand men. Pfouffe is all about letting the data do the talking (although he’s not afraid to get tough when he has to). Uber recently released two data-heavy reports that show the positive effects it has had on various cities, drivers and communities.

Plouffe is using data to highlight its contributions to local economies and society at large, including how much it values its partners (drivers).

As the Times points out, one recent study found that “of the 20 markets surveyed, the average driver wages were higher than taxi and limousine driver wage estimates from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Uber added close to 40,000 drivers to its ranks in the United States in December, the report said, and nearly 80 percent of its drivers were happy driving for the company.”

“Uber is growing every month, and is becoming a bigger part of not just cities and transportation systems, but of the whole economy,” he said in a recent interview. “We’re likely to be one of the biggest job-producing companies for the economy over the coming years.”

In another joint study, with Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), “Plouffe promoted Uber’s potential influence on drunken driving in states in which it operates,” the Times notes. “The study found that about four of five respondents said they were less likely to drive themselves home after a night of drinking because of ride-hailing applications like Uber.” Uber is promoting that research with the hashtag #thinkandride.

Still, Uber has a long way to go before it improves its tough-guy image. “A company like Uber, whose culture is defined by its willingness to go up against the established regulatory regime, is going to run into this problem of perception sooner or later,” van Bever told the Times.

Why is Uber playing Mr. Nice Guy? Well, it may help bring in money. As the Times notes, investors now value the company at more than $40 billion. To grow that number and investor confidence, the company is going to need to work with local governments around the world on their terms.

And it certainly can’t afford any more bad press, or PR disasters such as the follout that would occur if India decides to ban all ride-sharing companies due to an alleged rape by an Uber driver or South Korea doesn’t want the company there at all because of possible infractions of communications laws.

For his part, Pfouffe, is letting the world know just why it should open its arms to Uber: “Uber is growing every month, and is becoming a bigger part of not just cities and transportation systems, but of the whole economy,” he told the Times. “We’re likely to be one of the biggest job-producing companies for the economy over the coming years.”

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