“Technology itself — social media, cameraphones — has also turned the world into a panopticon prison for bad boys, whose misdeeds are now visible almost all the time. It was a dash cam that caught Kalanick’s unsympathetic retort to a struggling Uber driver.”(Janan Ganesh, Financial Times, 15.04.17)
How important is reputation when you’re contributing so much to society? Can an entrepreneur get away with hell just because they’ve created the fastest, the best, the most innovative or even just the shiniest new product, solution or service?
This was the conundrum posed by FT political columnist Janan Ganesh in a recent article referencing Uber CEO Travis Kalanick. Kalanick was caught red handed, berating one of his very own taxi drivers via the taxi’s dash cam. Just as Frankenstein’s Monster turned against his creator in the end, the very thing that Kalanick created ended up biting him on the arse. Cue widespread media coverage.
Despite his success in building one of the most recognisable and profitable tech brands today, Kalanick has largely been vilified by media. Not all of the criticism has been unwarranted. While Uber is now worth a staggering $70 billion according to recent approximations, reports of a culture of sexual harassment within the company, as well as Kalanick’s position on Trump’s economic advisory council (since resigned), have made many Uber users uncomfortable. Headlines have branded him as egotistical, obnoxious and a ‘bad boy.’
So we go back to Ganesh’s article. Where do the scales ultimately tip when balancing ‘outward greatness and private malevolence’? Let’s rewind back to the 1900s when Henry Ford, post industrial revolution, produced the first affordable automobile. Now imagine Ford was the bad boy of his day, out drinking until late, perhaps he was a philanderer with a gambling problem. Unless you saw those actions yourself, chances are you’d never know and you’d still buy your Model T.
Today in the 21st century, the very innovation that has propelled society to new, more connected heights – the Internet – has become the downfall of many entrepreneurs or company leaders with unsavoury habits or unlikeable characteristics. It’s an ironic twist of fate. Technology is a double-edged sword that rubs salt in the wound of any CEO, President or VP who dares to openly cross the ethical line. While the likes of Uber, Apple, Google and the countless other tech brands out there today have undoubtedly ushered in a new period of connectivity, style, design and convenience, these very technological tools have put businesses and their leaders under a magnifying glass. And that magnifying glass is easily heated up by the laser focus of today’s public, facilitated by social media platforms. Good deeds may or may not be noticed but bad deeds, when they are captured, are blown up for all to see. We now live in a name and shame culture; we are just as quick to vilify a wrong-doer as we are to rally together to support a positive cause. Everything can be found via a few clicks or well-placed cameras.
But does it matter? What impact does reputation have on the success of a business, or the way a business is perceived by the public? What would be the outcome if Kalanick was chaste, wholesome and never spoke out of turn? Would Uber be as appealing? Would it generate as much media interest or backing? For today’s brands, the landscape has never been so competitive and ruthless and almost by definition entrepreneurs need to be challenging and controversial. Let’s not expect the heads of game changing companies to be meek and mild – Apple founder Steve Jobs didn’t hold back and was reportedly something of a nightmare to work with. Likeability never hurt the success of a brand, but controversy, at least in moderation, doesn’t have to be damaging or damning.
Of course, any brand needs to be careful of falling foul of the wrong side of the law or its users. There are lines that shouldn’t be crossed and brands should be careful not to play Russian roulette with their reputation when so much is in the public eye. It seems to me that what Kalanick did was to ignore one of the golden rules – don’t slag off the little guy. Apart from some who measure their bank balance in millions (or billions), that little guy is representative of us all and that’s why we feel his pain, his shock and his disgust.
Brands still need to be accountable for what they are contributing to society and how it impacts individuals. The rise of citizen journalism has made it much more difficult for brands to brush off more sensitive dealings and issues. A sharp tongue really may not have a negative impact on brand success and it may even add to the allure, but when the likes of Kalanick abuse their privileged position, the bad boy is suddenly much less appealing.