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The Uber civil war is now a PR battle

As the fight between Benchmark and former CEO Travis Kalanick escalates, expect even more revelations and allegations (and trust no one).

New York Uber drivers protest rate cuts by holding up a “shame on Uber” sign
Shame on everyone.
Spencer Platt / Getty

I never met a messy corporate memo that I did not love to publish.

And it’s the same with all the media covering the ever-worsening civil war that is taking place at Uber these days. Which is why you should look no further than the leaks and counter-leaks of letters and memos and legal briefs and whatnot from the two sides vying for power to understand the state of play at the car-hailing company.

Sides backing Benchmark and those in the camp of CEO Travis Kalanick are shanking each other and using media — including Recode — as shivs. (To say this kind of reporting is no Woodward and Bernstein would be an understatement.)

Still, it’s news of a sort and so the accusations hurtle back and forth fast and furious between the venture firm and those whom I have called on Twitter “Travis’s attack poodles,” attempting to make a case to the public that the other side is really awful.

In addition, other players — including Uber employees and its board and individual board members — are also weighing in.

The characters include Uber co-founder and director Garrett Camp; Kalanick BFF and investor Shervin Pishevar; the (mostly) boys of Benchmark, who write as one; and the board members of Uber who aren’t suing each other, who also write as one but are actually not as one at all.

The infighting that has broken out into the open, of course, was widely denied by all at Uber to reporters — who wrote about it anyway — in soothing, nothing-to-see-here terms about how everyone was getting along and that the system was functioning smoothly.

Guess what? They weren’t and it isn’t, with the internecine fighting taking its toll largely on what is a company whose product is pretty nifty, but whose morale-low employees are caught in the middle.

They say when elephants fight, only the grass suffers. In this metaphor, all of Uber itself is the grass, losing because its leaders cannot help themselves and cannot manage to figure out a solution to settle.

It’s no surprise to me why, given the pugnacious slipping into malevolent DNA of the culture, all created by its early leaders, who celebrated their aggression with, well, more aggression.

Of these, Kalanick is the hardest hardball player of all, which also comes as no surprise since that is what he has been best — worst, really — at during his tenure at Uber. This is the man, after all, who painted taxi owners as the transportation equivalent of Darth Vader.

I think I am being kind to him when I tell you he is the type of person who will do anything to win and is unrepentant about that. You have to give credit to someone who sticks with his guns, I guess.

Naturally, Kalanick has hired his own personal PR people, the better to spin his clearly ragged side more attractively. And Job No. 1 was presumably to strafe Benchmark, after it waged an ugly lawsuit against Kalanick that claimed, among other things, that he was trying to take back control after the VC firm and other investors ousted him.

Well, he was and continues on that path, despite many denials to the contrary. I don’t believe him or any of his defenders about him not wanting to run things again and neither should you.

In any case, Kalanick answered that lawsuit last night, noting among other things that Benchmark “initiated this action as part of its public and personal attack on Travis Kalanick, the founder of Uber.”

He also accused the firm of heartlessness, noting that Benchmark had “executed its plan at the most shameful of times: immediately after Kalanick experienced a horrible personal tragedy.” For those not aware, that would be the death of his mother and serious injury of his father in a boating accident. In its actions, indeed, Benchmark’s timing could not have been more ill-chosen.

Kalanick also alleged that “the Benchmark principals also handed Kalanick a draft resignation letter, and told him he had hours to sign it, or else Benchmark would start a public campaign against him.”

Yes, I know: Pot meet kettle.

I have no idea about that threat, though I suspect that is how Kalanick heard it, since he thinks in those terms, even if Benchmark or its partners don’t have that much of a hammer reputation as that.

In actuality, aside from the lawsuit and a letter it sent to employees, Benchmark’s PR efforts have been relatively nonexistent and largely ineffective and they seem to have hidden away after they lobbed the lawsuit.

That’s clear from a story in the New York Times today, which paints the firm as a loser outlier and gives its high-profile partner Bill Gurley the nickname “Chicken Little” for trying to throttle back Kalanick’s lofty ambitions for Uber.

Okay, that was funny, and Gurley is kind of a grump among VCs. But, for the record, he is really quite tall in physical stature. And while he has plenty to answer for since he most certainly allowed and even enabled Kalanick to at times run Uber like a frat house version of Tony Soprano’s mob crew, Gurley is also pretty smart when it comes to strategic risk-taking.

But, like a lot of people who simply could not stomach the bad behaviors at Uber any longer, he and Benchmark presumably finally saw the light (and the oncoming danger of litigation) and have been trying to set the situation straight.

Why else go out on this limb, which has left the firm vulnerable to being considered a quisling to startup founders and therefore untouchable? Because what Benchmark did to Kalanick — even if perfectly justified — is a prime no-no in the even more toxic culture of Silicon Valley, in which entrepreneurs get more passes for terrible actions than Donald Trump gets to lob nasty tweets.

I don’t expect those to stop and neither will this. And so it will go on over the next weeks, as the two sides struggle over who the next CEO of Uber will be — my money is on outgoing General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt — and whether Benchmark will be pressured into selling off some of its large stake in Uber.

So try not to pay too much attention to the noise until those two things happen, because most of the rest of it is largely meaningless.

Well, except for the famous Holder report — which has been described to me as a devastating and substantial chronicle of mismanagement under Kalanick’s rule, as well as an indictment of its look-the-other-way board, too. And why do you imagine Benchmark keeps mentioning it in its lawsuit and in its few communications?

It’s because it is the real threat, especially if it gets out into the wild via discovery in this lawsuit or otherwise and into the hands of reporters.

Like me, for example, who is very good at that kind of hunting. In that case, that would be something that not even a mountain of PR on any side would be able to fix, because it would tell — however imperfectly — what actually happened.

And, I think we can all agree, that is the only story really worth hearing.


This article originally appeared on Recode.net.

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