PR Failure #3: Uber & Empathy

Olivia Fuller / April 30, 2018


Do you ever wish you could hit the reset button? I think we all do from time to time. But remember, failure is inevitable, it’s what we learn from that failure that matters the most. Each month we at The Fearey Group review a PR failure made by a brand, company, nonprofit, personality, etc. and tell you how we think it could have gone differently. The big idea here is to learn from these mistakes and become a better community together.

So, without further ado, let’s talk about March’s blunder brand: Uber & the Tempe police…

The Story:

This heartbreaking story is still developing, but we think it’s important to talk about right now.

On March 18th, Elaine Herzberg was struck and killed by a self-driving Uber car. Elaine was crossing the street with her bike in Tempe, Arizona, when the Uber vehicle failed to stop. This is what we currently know:

  • The Temple Police Vehicular Crimes Unit is actively investigating the details of this incident.
  • Elaine was crossing the street outside of a crosswalk, pushing a bicycle laden with shopping bags.
  • Uber’s autonomous car had a driver in the car while in self-driving mode and made no attempt to brake.
  • Tempe police chief told press “I suspect preliminarily it appears that the Uber would likely not be at fault in this accident.”
  • Video was released by Tempe Police of both the interior and exterior views from the Uber.

Since the incident, several statements have been made by Uber executives – you can read a summary of them here.

The Mistake:

The mistake here is two-fold. While Uber’s responses have been buttoned-up and straightforward, with a focus on cooperating with authorities, they have received a lackluster response from the public. Why? They lack empathy and understanding.

Particularly the response from Uber CEO who tweeted:

“Some incredibly sad news out of Arizona. We’re thinking of the victim’s family as we work with local law enforcement to understand what happened.”

While the tweet may seem unassuming, the problem is it’s scripted and completely unauthentic – anyone could’ve written it. It lacks any sort of true empathetic response and makes the loss of human life seem like an afterthought.

Worse though, was Tempe police chief’s interview, published March 19, in which she makes several interesting statements:

  • “The driver said it was like a flash, the person walked out in front of them,” said Sylvia Moir, police chief in Tempe, Ariz., the location for the first pedestrian fatality involving a self-driving car. “His first alert to the collision was the sound of the collision.”
  • From viewing the videos, “it’s very clear it would have been difficult to avoid this collision in any kind of mode (autonomous or human-driven) based on how she came from the shadows right into the roadway,” Moir said.
  • “The Uber would likely not be at fault in this accident, either,” Moir said.

A life was lost. Why they felt it necessary to make such bold preliminary statements is unclear. Stating the unlikelihood of Uber being at fault for a life lost to a self-driving car before the investigation is completed is not only disrespectful, but it’s seemingly completely unnecessary. It seems clearing the name of Uber is more important than taking a moment to acknowledge what just happened.

The Lesson Learned:

Legally, companies have to be careful about what statements convey, and some amount of scripting is expected. However, that doesn’t mean empathy can’t be expressed, especially in an instance where someone died by cause of your company. Efforts can be made without admitting guilt. For example, assure the public the cause will be found and corrected, even if that means permanently grounding self-driving cars. If the public knows you hold safety at the upmost importance versus profits, they’ll be more forgiving.

As for the Tempe Police, it is best to release statements stating speculation on who will be held at fault for a death when a) the investigation is closer to completion and therefore conclusions are more certain and b) longer than one day has passed after the death of the victim.


To sum up:

  • Be empathetic.
  • Show your commitment to avoiding future incidents.
  • Be considerate of the timing of your statements.
  • If your statements are based on speculation, best keep them to yourself.

Cheers to being successful this month with the least amount of failure possible.


Until next month,

Aaron Blank and the Fearey Fam