All those cheerleaders for driver and rider matching service Uber have been quiet of late, which suggests that someone out there is worried. After this week’s revelations, showing that Uber in London was known to be operating illegally back in December 2013 following the complaint made by Clifford, Chance on behalf of the capital’s private hire operators, they may be yet more nervous. And those revelations aren’t finished yet.
After Jo Bertram of Uber was given the hard word on compliance by Cliff Llewellyn of TfL, not only was the panic button pressed in San Francisco, with the British Consulate there becoming involved, the PR initiative began in London, in an effort to soften up TfL management. To this end, Uber left nothing to chance, and employed the services of PR specialists RLM Finsbury, who immediately made contact.
One of their partners contacted Jennifer Holmes in the Mayor’s office - whether there was any prompting from Bozza is not known - who gave the PR people the name of Isabel Dedring, Deputy Mayor for Transport. Ms Dedring was busy - whether this was genuinely busy or merely bodyswerving busy is also not known - and this is where Garrett Emmerson, as COO for surface transport, came in.
We also know that Uber took the schmoozing aspect seriously enough for Travis Kalanick himself to come over from California, and bring Corey Owens, Uber’s head of global public policy along. That underscores the awareness that the situation was serious, and that Uber was prepared to throw the whole shop at the problem in order to sort it.
Moreover, as RLM Finsbury have revealed, Kalanick was so desperate to get some time with TfL management that the whole of the first week of January 2014 was initially set aside for a meeting, with the PR people stressing “They could do almost any time that week, other than first thing on Monday 6 January or late afternoon/evening of Friday 10 January (although we can be flexible there too if need be)”.
That desperation is eyebrow-raising, but what is truly jaw-dropping about the correspondence is the repeated admission that what Uber was doing was against the law in London. The 27th December email to Anita Chen spells it out: “Uber is a revolutionary, new software platform connecting users with for-hire transport”. The 30th December email has “connecting consumers with for-hire transport”.
That does not describe how a private hire operator works. It asserts that Uber merely facilitates the process of a customer hiring - yes, hiring - a car and driver. “For-hire transport” is the phrase used twice. The only “for-hire” transport allowed to operate in London is the black cab. Uber’s PR is saying, as clear as day, that Uber is about “for-hire transport”, and that is against the law. So is the idea of merely connecting riders and drivers - private hire bookings must go via an operating centre.
RLM Finsbury may have been spectacularly naive, but on any criteria, this is yet another admission that Uber was coming at the market from a blatantly illegal position.
Uber probably paid RLM Finsbury a lot of money for their assistance. It’s unfortunate that all that dosh didn’t also pay for someone who knew their taxi and private hire law.