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Surprise, Surprise: Uber, Lobbying And Avoiding Regulatory Shocks

25/09/2017 15:19

On Friday last week came news to gladden the hearts of all black cab drivers. Ride hailing service Uber was to be stripped of its licence by TfL after an investigation into claims made about passenger safety. The media reported this as a "surprise" move. But was it really all that unexpected?

Uber's travails, after all, are part of a pattern seen all over the world. Dominant foreign firm descends and disrupts a previously protected domestic market, raising hackles and prompting political anxiety. Interloper seems weirdly one dimensional about its approach to communicating with politicians, typically doing just enough to secure the backing of the Prime Minister or President and his or her coterie, and no more. Astonishment ensures when antipathy or simple lack of understanding amongst wider opinion-formers causes political or regulatory difficulties. In this reading, Uber is just another arrogant and complacent US tech giant, another Google or Amazon.

The problem is one that half-decent lobbyists will recognise: that in a democracy like the UK deep but narrow lobbying is not enough. Hiring Rachel Whetstone and becoming much loved by Cameron and Osborne, and their Labour equivalents, is great - but what happens when they fall out of power? If you haven't invested time in engaging with a broader base of advocates you can easily be caught napping. As Uber has found out.

More to the point, Uber and others simply do not invest enough time in harnessing the enthusiasm of their users - at least until it is too late. It turns out that people are angry about Uber losing its licence, and more than half a million can be motivated to sign a petition to protest. But how about making sure these voices are heard before the event? After all, they've got the contact details and regular communication so it really should be no problem. They just have to prioritise it.

The reason this is important is that a majority can always be trumped by a minority if the latter are more passionate, more organised and have at least one good argument on their side. In this case, a coalition of unions bothered by the gig economy, black cabbies and licensed minicab companies worried about market share, and groups concerned about safety were easily able to override the views of a much larger, but un-organised and relatively un-motivated, group of users and Uber drivers. Uber lost because the other side cared more, and was persistent enough to find an issue - safety - that allowed them to achieve their goals.

Businesses should all learn from this. In an era in which more and more people of all stripes don't like big companies and are suspicious of globalisation Uber, Amazon, Kraft and others start on the back foot as far as decision makers are concerned. The old arguments about job creation, inward investment, and corporate responsibility just aren't enough, as Uber has found out. Even arguing that no modern economy can turn its back on progress and technology won't wash. No, in this world businesses need the active and engaged support of their consumers. After all, the greatest part of the utility of a business is that it makes something or provides a service people want or need. This is always the strongest point any company can make in any argument.

So communicators need to help businesses build communities of motivated and vocal advocates amongst consumers. There are lots of ways to do this: they can start very simply by being louder and prouder of what they do - old school 'keeping your head down' really has had its day. They can create forums to capture the views of users, and to alert them to issues coming up and how they can get involved. They can even encourage 'super-users' to become semi-official spokespeople, talking on their behalf. There are lots of things they can do. They just need to invest the time and energy in doing it.

On that note, I have a free piece of advice for Uber. Your next campaign should be for TfL to be forced to take account of all transport users in London, not just the easier to reach tube and bus travellers and the official bus, tube and train user groups. Maybe look for the general public, including ride-hailing users, to have a formal voice on the TfL board alongside the great and the good, including the unions. In future campaign for these sorts of changes before you really need them, before the horse has bolted. That way regulatory change won't come as such a surprise.

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