No one is telling you the real story behind Uber’s latest layoffs
I’d have more sympathy for those who whine about Pando’s constant coverage of Uber if everyone else wasn’t doing such a fuck-awful job of covering the company.
On Friday, the New York Times’ Mike Isaac published a scoop: Uber is laying off around 20 people in its comms and policy department. As Isaac reported, the move follows the recent arrival of Rachel Whetstone as Uber’s head of policy and communications.
And yet. According to Google News, a grand total of one publication – Business Insider – followed up Isaac’s story. One. And that follow-up amounted to little more than a re-write of Isaac's tweet about the story. The major tech blogs completely ignored it. TechCrunch: Nothing. Re/Code: Nothing. Bloomberg: Nothing. Which, as I wrote previously, was pretty much the same story when Whetstone was originally hired. [Update: Although Isaac's tweet is timestamped before Business Insider's story, BI's Biz Carson says she reported the story independently, and published first.]
Worse, even Isaac buried the real story, two paragraphs from the end of his report….
People with knowledge of the matter, however, do not describe the layoffs as widespread. They are a result of a shift in the communications and policy strategy that came with the arrival of new executives.
The real story here is not that Uber has laid off a few people. The real story is that Rachel Whetstone is cleaning house; getting rid of David Plouffe’s people in order to remake the company’s comms and policy team in her own image.
The move is precisely what I warned of back in May when I wrote:
Let’s be clear: Plouffe’s departure (and it is a departure) to be replaced by Rachel Whetstone is an absolutely fascinating, and important, story. To Brits like me, it's also a story that telegraphs clearly how Uber intends to get more, not less, aggressive and shady in its dealings with both lawmakers and the media. If you were worried about Uber's power under Plouffe, you should be shitting yourself at what they'll be capable of under Whetstone.
To get an idea of precisely how much the rest of the media – including the New York Times, for Christ’s sake – is dropping the ball here, you only have to consider the one paragraph Isaac dedicated to Whetstone’s first major hire…
Ms. Whetstone hired Jill Hazelbaker, an executive at Snapchat and a former colleague of Ms. Whetstone at Google, where Ms. Hazelbaker also ran policy and communications teams.
Because that’s what Jill Hazelbaker is most famous for: Working at Snapchat and Google.
Not, say, for the one-and-a-half years she spent running comms for John McCain’s presidential campaign, having previously worked as press director on Michael Bloomberg’s re-election campaign. Not for the fact that Hazelbaker is a towering posterchild for how major tech companies are hiring professional political strategists to manage their policy and communications teams.
Nothing to see here, says the New York Times. Ignore the flashing red warning indicator that Uber is handing over control of its most important and influential department to career political operators.
The reality according to the Times: Uber hired Rachel Whetstone because she had worked at Google, not because she is a career political player, credited with helping rehabilitate the UK Conservative party’s “nasty party” image. And not because of her ties with world leaders and media moguls. Nope: Just the Google thing.
Likewise, trust the Times when it tells you that Whetstone hired Hazelbaker because they’re old Google pals – nothing to do with her work as a GOP strategist, who worked to elect John McCain. It certainly says absolutely nothing about what’s happening inside Uber that Hazelbaker’s role as McCain’s strategist and communications director pitted her directly against Obama’s campaign manager... David Plouffe. Just a coincidence. Not even worth a mention, despite the fact that the goddamned CEO of the company stood on stage at Re/Code’s Code Conference in 2014 and announced that henceforth "We’re in a political campaign, and the candidate is Uber."
In fairness to the New York Times’ Mike Isaac, how could he possibly be expected to remember that interview? After all: he only WORKED AT RE/CODE AT THE TIME.
I wish I could point to some grand conspiracy – some brilliant piece of media jujitsu by Uber – to explain the horrible job being done by just about every tech reporter when it comes to the most valuable private company in the history of Silicon Valley. Sadly the explanation is even more depressing: A side effect of publications trusting tech bloggers to cover what long ago became a business story and is increasingly a political one.
(In fact, the recruitment of political crisis managers, lobbyists and oppo researchers by Valley giants can be traced back to at least 2005 when Elliot Schrage joined Google to head up public policy. Schrage, you’ll remember if you’re not Mike Isaac, followed Sheryl Sandberg to Facebook not long before the company was found to have hired Burson-Marsteller to plant smear stories about Google in the press. No one was fired over that scandal, just as no one was fired when Uber threatened to do oppo research on journalists. Tale as old as time. )
The big story about Uber’s layoffs is who Whetstone hires next to work alongside Hazelbaker. How she staffs out her entire department, and to what end. And the even bigger story is how every Silicon Valley unicorn is hiring its own Son of Machiavelli to run policy and comms: from Airbnb’s head of global policy and public affairs Chris Lehane (previously an opposition researcher for Bill Clinton) to Ken Baer, the former Al Gore speech writer now tasked with convincing journalists, and their readers, that Zenefits didn’t unlawfully sell insurance in seven states.
Are the best and brightest political strategists really abandoning DC for the Valley, or are political players stealthily seizing control of the New Power being amassed on the West Coast?
We’ll keep asking those questions, and digging for answers. It’d be great if we weren’t the only ones.