The plus side of tech companies being horrible in a crisis
This week has been a bit like 2017 in a nutshell: We’ve seen three major examples of how Silicon Valley responds to a crisis.
First, a murder was broadcast on Facebook Live the day before Mark Zuckerberg opened f8 with his most anticipated keynote of the year.
Second, Bloomberg wrote a story that became an endless meme when a reporter proved you didn’t need a $400 machine and four tons of pressure to press Juicero’s juice… she did it with her bare hands.
Third, Uber inflicted crisis on itself. Uber actually has had comparatively little scandal in recent weeks. You’d think during a week when sexual harassment at Fox News was dominating the news cycle Uber would stay as quiet and still as possible. Nah. The Verge brought us this gem yesterday: A bunch of Uber bros (and one woman) posing in front of an #undelete graffiti during a team building exercise.
All three responses have been criticized on some level. But of the three, the least criticized was Zuckerberg’s, which is remarkable because that was easily the worst of the three crises. I mean, murder happening on your platform is hard to top, right? It speaks volumes of both how good Facebook has gotten at this game… and how horrible the other two are. It also speaks volumes about what Facebook has actually built, that billions of people actually want whether we always think that’s great for the world or not.
Zuckerberg acknowledged it happened, and offered vague platitudes about how they’d “do better.” And then moved on to remind investors, developers, and … ahem Snap and it’s investors, why this company is worth more than $300 billion. He wasn’t Zuckerberg the “what is he really saying?” politician. He was the product visionary and ruthless competitor Mark Zuckerberg, investors cheered and the bulk of the social media debate was about whether this AR world was creepy or not.
Not only did he shift the conversation around Facebook, but he telegraphed what Facebook is. It is a company that simply is not going to be a media company that takes responsibility for what happens on its site as much as the media wants it to be. It is a company that is ruled by data. And until data (or Germany) say Facebook Live is a serious problem, Facebook has other priorities. Like, yunno, absolutely burying Snap.
Compare that to Juicero’s CEO Jeff Dunn who waited far too long to address the Bloomberg piece, after most of the Internet had made its jokes about a product that people already loved to mock as an elitist, over-funded solution to a problem most people don’t have. He started a whole new cycle of joke with his Medium post.
Let’s start with the wisdom of putting his history at Coca-Cola in the same sentence as his “personal mission and passion” around solving “the nation’s nutrition and obesity challenge.” Ok. . .
But it gets more cringe-worthy when he talks about Bloomberg “hacking” his product by… squeezing it, and posted a series of defenses for why indeed the $400 juicer was a better option. One of them was not squeezing your juice in the event of a spinach recall. If the reason I need a $400 juicer is it will keep me from getting poisoned by its juice…. um…. not the greatest value proposition in the world.
But it wasn’t just that his logic was faulty. It was the tone of his piece. It read as if it was written by the cast of HBO’s Silicon Valley with its inauthentic-sounding change-the-world-isms like “The value of Juicero is more than a glass of cold-pressed juice. Much more.”
But don’t go to that Medium post to read his words (or whatever crisis comm person wrote them). Go to read the comments. Which also sound like they came from the writers room at Silicon Valley. People just eviscerated poor Jeff Dunn, but not in that petty anonymous comment section style. People— largely under their own names— made excellent points about why his message was falling so flat.
For instance, that obesity is a problem that disproportionately impacts low income people who can’t afford anything Juicero offers. If he would listen, if he would read those comments, he’d know the problem Juicero has: It’s less about whether their juice is good or not and more about whether there’s a market for the machine.
It’s become a symbol of Silicon Valley overfunding, vaporware, and elitism. It’s the gig economy, which has made half of the world subsidized servants to the other half. It’s the unicorn economy that never experienced a correction. It’s bro culture. It’s all these promises of flying cars and self driving cars and hyperloops that we know are mostly not gonna happen, combined with all those hardware devices sold over Kickstarter and Indiegogo that never shipped or never quite worked. And because of the visual of squeezing a bag of juice and the sanctimonious defense of it: It’s a far too easy target for all of that disdain rolled into one (hand-squeezable) package.
That’s somewhat unfair on Juicero. There are far more overfunded companies, far worse actors in Silicon Valley. But also, part of the game when you raise $120 million for a $400 juice machine you pretend will solve obesity in America.
The crisis comm worked so poorly, because the way it was done just reinforced what people thought of the company: That it was tone deaf and elitist, making ultimately false claims about its technology.
But at least Juicero had a crisis to respond to. Uber created its own when its team proudly went on a graffiti team building exercise and proudly tagged a studio with “#undelete.” Nearly every headline started with some version of “Apparently Uber thought it was a good idea to…”
So much was…. well, so Uber about this moment. For starters, the company that puts these events on has been applauded by those who hate tech for selling these suckers the same San Francisco “authenticity” that they are helping to destroy. No kidding: They circulate a list of street terms to the techies as part of the workshop.
Second, there was only one woman in the photo. It was the tech world equivalent to all those photos of white dudes when the GOP convened the new congress. If you look at Web site for the company who puts these team builders on, you’ll see every other company has far more gender balance.
But more to the point it’s that same criticism that Jeff Jones made about Uber that got him hired, and seems to be a reason he quit a few months later. Uber doesn’t stand for anything. It only stands against things.
When other companies were “tagging” corporate missions to build community they chose things like “Yay Area” (Deloitte) or “Deliver” (GE) or “Trust Engagement” (Salesforce). Uber could only pick a petulant reaction to its scandals. And you could tell by the looks on their faces, they were pretty proud of that choice.
Uber outdid Jeff Dunn who confirmed all the reasons people mock Juicero with one badly written blog post, by confirming all the reasons people hate Uber with one single photo: It’s mostly male, it’s douchey, it doesn’t stand for anything, and it sees nothing wrong with any of that.
I remember after the United Airlines incident, several people remarking that they were glad the airline handled the PR crisis so badly, because it showed us the soul of that company. I’d say the same about Juicero and Uber.