by Bill Snyder

Uber Sways Regulators With Old School Lobbying Tactics

Dec 17, 20143 mins
Consumer Electronics

When things don't go Uber's way, the lightning rod ride-share service unleashes an army of professional lobbyists.

“Corporations are people, my friend,” Mitt Romney famously quipped during his presidential campaign. Like flesh and blood people, corporations have the right to donate money to politicians and lobby for whatever causes they favor. And in the case of Uber, the cause it favors is … Uber.

The ride sharing service built a formidable lobbying team and has become masterful at using social media to rattle the cages of politicians and regulators when it believes its interests are threatened, according to a recent article in The Washington Post.

In June, for example, Virginia’s Department of Motor Vehicles was about to bar Uber from operating in the state. Uber responded with a two-pronged attack, according to The Post. It sent a notice to riders that included DMV Commissioner Richard Holcomb’s email address and phone number. Holcomb was in charge of the decision, and before long his inbox was flooded. At the same time, Uber mobilized its corps of professional lobbyists in the state capital.

After the lobbyists landed meetings with aides to Gov. Terry McAuliffe, the state transportation secretary reportedly put the regulations on hold. That’s just one example of the fast-moving company’s fast-growing clout.

Image credit: REUTERS/Max Whittaker

Taxi drivers recently protesting against companies such as Uber and Lyft in Sacramento, Calif.

During the past eight months, officials in 17 cities and states approved measures that let Uber operate — seven of them were approved since the start of October. Uber expanded from 28 U.S. cities a year ago to 138, according to the company.

Taxi services have long been regulated, and Uber needed to find a way to exempt itself. So it hired a total of 161 lobbyists in at least 50 cities and states to help convince regulators that it has a right to operate. In California, for example, the company spent $475,000 to lobby lawmakers, according to records reviewed by The Post.

Uber’s savvy political operations are in stark contrast to its often tone-deaf public persona. Most recently it walked into a PR buzzsaw by instituting so-called surge pricing during a hostage crisis in Sydney, Australia. The company quickly reversed course.

Last month, Uber executive Emil Michael was caught suggesting that the company hire opposition researchers to dig up dirt on the (predominantly female) journalists who have been asking uncomfortable questions about his ride-share service. Uber is quickly gaining a reputation for bullying its rivals and doing a poor job vetting drivers.

Nonetheless, the company grows rapidly, attracts a huge number of riders and has a sky-high market valuation. Despite the occasional juvenile behavior from its execs, Uber’s lobbying efforts are worthy of a much older, and wiser, company.