Back in 2013, the Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association (TLPA) decided that the for-hire industry needed a collective and national voice to counteract all of the noise coming from—and being written about—the TNCs. Using the considerable resources and expertise of its longtime communications consulting firm, Melwood Global, they launched Who’s Driving You?, the hugely successful media campaign. We spoke to John Boit and Dave Sutton of Melwood Global, which recently celebrated its 10-year anniversary, about the campaign as well as the upcoming debut of Fleet Forward, an initiative to help TLPA and its members to share best practices, spark ideas, and inspire each other.
Chauffeur Driven: How did you get involved with TLPA?
John Boit: We answered an RFP. They were looking for a communications consulting firm, someone who would help them better understand how to engage the media and to help prepare members for that. It’s no secret that this is an industry that has often been reluctant to embrace the media, but TLPA leadership recognized that it was something that they wanted to improve. We went through a pretty rigorous process before they chose us as their firm, and we’ve been absolutely delighted and honored to be with them for eight years now. A lot has changed since then. Our first project for the association was developing a Tool Kit for Media Outreach by TLPA members.
CD: Where did the idea for Who’s Driving You? come from?
Dave Sutton: When TLPA became aware of Uber operating in a way that was undercutting public safety, the association’s leadership started looking for ideas to make people aware of this. And they wanted to do this not through just traditional media, but also through a robust social media presence. That was something that the association emphasized from the beginning, in part because the importance of reaching a younger audience was very important.
JB: I really do commend TLPA for doing this. They stepped up and said, ‘We need a national voice—a national presence—someone who will help make sense of all of this.’ They’ve stuck with it and they’ve been an absolutely essential part of this fight and the national discussion. The association has a rotating presidency, and it’s been an honor to work with every one of their leaders each year, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention [TLPA CEO] Al LaGasse. He’s taken the time to explain the nuance of every issue so that we effectively carry the message for TLPA.
CD: Who is the specific audience?
JB: It’s a number of different audiences. We want to reach regulators so that they understand the danger of having an unregulated transportation company on the road that is willfully cutting corners with safety. We also want to be a resource to the media—it’s no fluke that our “incidents” page is one of the highest read pages on the Who’s Driving You? website. We want to reach the general public—the consumers who use TNCs—so that they are thinking twice and know the dangers that can come with entering that car. We want to help them understand that the driver has not gone through the same background checks that the vast majority of limousine and taxicab drivers have. And then, of course, are the legislators, because we see this battle being played out through statewide and local legislation.
DS: Lawmakers are one of our key audiences. When launching in a new city, Uber generally makes the same moves, so we have helped to make a lot of lawmakers aware of their scare tactics or of the ways they tend to undercut public safety, whether it’s their background checks or their insurance. This makes lawmakers a little more aware, quite frankly, of who they’re dealing with and what a company like Uber is capable of.
CD: How have you promoted it to the different audiences?
JB: That’s where social media is a powerful tool. Depending on the messages, we may promote it to a certain geographic area, demographic, or even profession. Using the website as our anchor, we’ll use Facebook and Twitter as the mechanisms in which to build those bridges with specific communities of people like lawmakers or the public at large.
CD: What type of stories do you share?
DS: We have an “incidents” page that lists all of the media reported issues involving Uber and Lyft drivers, including physical assaults, sexual assaults, and deaths. The point of it has always been to emphasize that the companies are operating unsafely, but one of the byproducts of this page is that news sources have linked to our site. The fact that we are an aggregator of all of these Uber problems has pushed us into the news on a steady basis, and has brought a lot of awareness to the association.
JB: We all remember when we pushed out the briefer on Uber back in 2012, and there was this wonderfully shrill headline that read “Taxicab Industry Issues Fearmongering Warning.” No one called us, but everything we said in that briefer came true. It’s very much a real danger, with thousands of drivers who are working for the TNCs who have not been fingerprinted—or in Uber’s case, drivers who have never stood in front of another human being before being allowed to drive for the company. It’s done in almost an anonymous way. You can see all the problems with that scenario.
DS: We also steadily issue blogs, which we try to write in a measured tone so that we emphasize how useful they are rather than rhetoric that might be counterproductive.
JB: The main goal of the campaign is to be a resource and to be a measured voice that is backed up by a lot experience. Our job is to take all of those decades of experience that the local for-hire passenger transportation industry has within TLPA membership and to act as the funnel though which that experience can be turned into a thoughtful, productive message. The campaign is specifically designed to be fact-based and provide information to people so that they can make their own decisions.
You can’t allow one company with billions of dollars to come in and not play by any rules, and then expect everyone else to compete. It simply can’t work that way.” – John Boit, Melwood Global
CD: We’ve noticed that the TNC stories were once resoundingly positive, but have become a little more mixed and critical of TNCs. What do you think has caused this shift in reporting?
JB: I think it’s a combination of factors, but you have more and more stories out there about passengers being harmed by Uber drivers. You have more stories about drivers who are being taken advantage of and are being paid below minimum wage. On top of that, you have the benefit of a national campaign that is helping people to connect those dots. Now they’re asking if Uber is really what it’s claiming to be because, empirically, it’s not taking the most effective steps to protect its passengers or providing the well-paying jobs they claim. I think that three years ago, Uber was a shiny new object, but people have understandably become very wary and cynical of what these companies actually stand for. In the beginning, people thought Uber was this plucky little startup that began in some garage somewhere, a Silicon Valley unicorn “innovator,” when in fact it’s just another local for-hire passenger transportation company. Uber and Lyft got to where they are today for two reasons: billions of dollars from Wall Street investors and venture capitalists to fund a massive marketing campaign, and it was willing to break the laws in almost every single city by claiming that it was merely a technology company.
DS: The truth about Uber is exceptionally unflattering, but at the same time, the TNCs generate a ton of media coverage and eventually many of their downsides became public. This was particularly on display in Austin, Texas, where they had the recent citywide referendum on fingerprinting drivers. You had a number of local reporters who were repeatedly seeing what the company was capable of and how it would change message to attempt to manipulate the outcome of the vote. Many of those reporters started to sour on Uber, and you could see in print as the weeks passed. That’s happening nationally. There’s a willingness to put people at risk for their own bottom line. So cities and states are suddenly thinking again about fingerprint checks.
JB: You know, this entire issue is very simple: Passengers should certainly expect some comfort in the fact that their driver—a complete stranger—has been checked and fingerprinted by an outside, neutral party, one that has no financial stake in the outcome. That’s all cities have to ask for and then let the chips fall where they may: If the driver passes, then great; if he fails, then too bad that he can’t drive. It is such a simple thing to do and yet Uber resists it repeatedly so that you have no choice but to ask why they would resist such a common sense, standard industry practice. That has to tell the public something.
There’s a willingness to put people at risk for their own bottom line. So cities and states are suddenly thinking again about fingerprint checks.” – Dave Sutton, Melwood Global
CD: How do you think that the message of safety resonates to the general public when it’s convenience and cost that seems to be driving demand?
DS: TLPA commissioned a poll of 3,025 respondents across the U.S. and 81 percent said that safety was their number one need in for-hire passenger ground transportation. What we saw in the beginning was that quite a bit of Uber’s passengers just assumed that it was safe because the company was saying it was. As time passed, awareness grew. Passenger safety has become an issue for cities.
CD: What are you most proud of regarding this campaign?
JB: I like an underdog, and when we started this, we didn’t have the most welcoming reception from the media and the public. We were asked why we would be against something that is so innovative. We’ve been consistently on message that we are not against innovation—it’s the lifeblood of this industry—but what we are against are corporations cutting corners and harming people along the way just so that their investors can hit their payday. We’re very proud that cities across the U.S. are becoming aware of the need to fingerprint Uber and Lyft drivers for passenger safety.
CD: What developing stories are you following closely?
DS: We’re focused on fingerprinting fights. Uber is relentless in trying to get laws and regs passed that favor its business model, yet at the same time, cities are continually going back and tightening up their own regulations for public safety reasons. We see that Uber won’t quit, while also seeing that cities are waking up to the fact that driver screening is inadequate.
CD: Have you gotten a direct response from Uber or Uber surrogates?
DS: Yes. In essence, we received a direct response after the shooting in Kalamazoo. When the driver was accused of mass murder, we spoke to a huge number of outlets and pointed out a few key items, including that Uber doesn’t meet with a prospective driver personally. Uber responding to many of the items that we raised in subsequent news pieces. Over the years, we’ve had many reporters try to set up debates with us and Uber has always refused.
JB: Uber responded shortly after we launched the campaign with a counter “I’m Driving You” blog. It hired a PR firm to set up a website called something like “Taxi Facts.”
DS: [Laughs] I remember The Washington Post saying that Taxi Facts was essentially “light on facts.”
CD: What do you think the future is for the industry, and how do you think you may impact that?
JB: There’s no question that the industry is changing very rapidly, and part of that is that the needs of passengers have changed. Passengers have different expectations of their transportation now: They want to be picked up in less than five minutes, they want to be able to track the car on an app, and, in many cases, they don’t want it to look like a taxi. They want a sleeker looking sedan with no markings on it. It’s something that’s been particularly difficult for the taxicab segment of the industry because it is governed by laws and regulations that dictate what it looks like and how many are on the streets. But I see operators really embracing the changes and thinking of new ways to run their businesses. That includes looking at apps that are best for passengers’ needs, rethinking how they are marketed and branded, and what the vehicle looks like. I think that there’s opportunity there, but the key is—once again—a level playing field. You can’t allow one company with billions of dollars to come in and not play by any rules, and then expect everyone else to compete. It simply can’t work that way.
CD: Do you think Uber and Lyft will be successful in capturing the corporate market?
JB: Certainly, Uber and Lyft have recognized the importance of the corporate market, and where in the past, TNCs have been reluctant to offer services like pre-booked rides, having a duty of care, and providing assurances on things like timing, they are now attempting to provide these services in some markets. Nationally, limousine and sedan companies continue to deliver high-touch service to their customers, from reservations all the way through accounting because they understand that in the corporate market, the quality of service is paramount. Limousine and sedan companies must recognize the need for constant investment in new technology, new safety programs, their people, fleets, procedur es, and systems to compete with the TNCs.
CD: What else is on the TLPA’s radar?
JB: The TNCs are clearly the biggest issue, but at the same time, there’s a lot more going on the industry that TLPA is working on. We’re about to launch an initiative called Fleet Forward, which we hope will help to keep the conversation going. I attend the TLPA conferences each year and I always find them invigorating. Members learn a tremendous amount from each other, so we’re trying to recreate these same environments in between the gatherings. By using part technology and part content delivery, we can continue that conversation. For example, we’re going to be looking for those positive and inspirational stories that the industry has. We want to know how we can better share those stories. By showcasing members’ stories and sharing with other members, it spurs ideas and new ways of doing things. Social media will be key in engaging in both current and new members who are looking for inspirational ideas from their peers. Another component will be using short videos highlighting good ideas, whether they’re from TLPA leadership or members. Webinars will also fill in the spaces between the conferences so that they are learning from one another. We want to highlight women in the industry so that their voices are being heard. We want to make the industry more social via the channels that they have available to them because they have a tremendous resource with the TLPA. [CD0716]