crisis PR

Uber Fatality Shows a Crisis Can Travel Far and Fast

The first recorded fatality resulting from a driverless vehicle reinforced the reality that technology has the potential of turning a communications crisis into a family affair, complicating how and when to respond.

The first recorded fatality resulting from a driverless vehicle reinforced the reality that technology has the potential of turning a communications crisis into a family affair, complicating how and when to respond.

Managing a communications crisis in the age of technology has the quality of managing the branches of a family crisis, as evidenced by the fatal accident in Tempe, Arizona involving an Uber vehicle operating in autonomous mode. It may be the first recorded fatality involving a driverless car.

The pedestrian fatality ensnared Uber (which was testing the driverless vehicle), Volvo (the manufacturer of the vehicle), an unidentified software developer and other automakers working on autonomous vehicles. For its part, Uber expressed condolences to the victim’s family, suspended its driverless vehicle testing program and said it was cooperating with local police.

Preliminary indications suggest the accident, which involved a woman and her bike emerging from a shadowy area where there wasn’t a crosswalk, may have been unavoidable with or without a driver. However, that finding is unlikely to quell concerns about the safety of autonomous vehicles nor the communications crisis surrounding the incident.

Some critics have jumped on news that the Uber driver was a felon. More thoughtful critics have wondered how the software controlling the vehicle was written, and what priority it gave to avoiding a pedestrian, even one that may have been hard to spot with a human eye. Broader criticism has centered on how rapidly driverless cars have been advanced and whether the transformation should be slowed or even scrapped.

Automakers with autonomous vehicles on the cusp hustled to lament the fatality, but defend the project. Software developers may be squirming to find out how to avoid becoming scapegoats.

Construction accidents, environmental spills and financial embezzlements spill over to multiple parties, usually resulting in finger-pointing. But technology-centered crises are even more borderless. People harbor skepticism about technology. Ride-hailing Uber may be the most distrusted technology company, even among people who rely on it to get home safely from a night on the town.

Managing a crisis has always been a fluid, ill-structured exercise. When a crisis goes 3-D, it takes a special kind of communicator binoculars to track. Adding to the fun are the ever-changing outlets for crisis exposure. More angles, more players, more outlets make for more headaches.

Perhaps the most telling lesson from the Uber fatality is the crisis trail it creates for uninvolved parties. Even though a Volvo was involved in the accident, Mercedes felt compelled to comment since it has signed up to provide Uber driverless. Toyota commented because it is exploring driverless cars. The police made a point to note it was investigating the fatal accident just like any other fatal accident.

Responding to a crisis is hard and it is getting harder. More vulnerabilities. More “reporters” with smartphones. More “news” outlets. And now more players. If you thought you could skate by or play it by ear, your odds continue to plummet. You never know when a crisis can occur, and you can’t really guess how, who or where it will affect your business or reputation.

Crisis preparation may be harder than denial, but is a lot more useful and constructive. The Uber fatality should be a loud horn honk that crisis prep is a basic accessory to any successful business.


Representing Ferguson, MO

People who dislike confrontation should avoid crisis communication. It is all about confrontation, often with your own client.

Denise Bentele, CEO of Common Ground, the PR firm hired by Ferguson, Missouri, which has been rocked by protests and commentary following the shooting death of an unarmed African-American teenager by a white police officer.

Bentele and her St. Louis-based PR team face a tough job. Michael Brown, the shooting victim, died from six gunshot wounds, two to the head. His bleeding body was left uncovered on the street where he was shot for an uncomfortably long time. The police chief refused at first to disclose the name of the officer who shot Brown. Police responded to protests by brandishing military-style armor and weapons. Businesses in Ferguson were looted. Journalists covering the protests were arrested. Scenes flashed across national TV news broadcasts of bedlam in the streets.

It would be fair to say life in this St. Louis suburb pretty much has changed forever. Scrutiny will be intense in a place that has a black majority, an all-white city council and just a handful of black police officers.

Providing crisis communications to Ferguson would be daunting for anyone. Bentele discovered daunting included negative public and professional reaction to her hiring. In addition to the typical rants about hiring a PR spin machine, Common Ground was assailed for the ethnic makeup of its staff.

Bentele defended her firm's involvement, saying she and her team were brought in to help Ferguson field "the overwhelming number of media inquiries" the city received daily. Bentele also said she recommended Ferguson hire The Devin James Group, a black-owned firm, to assist on community engagement.