By Stephen McBride
David Plouffe is credited with Barack Obama’s unlikely 2008 victory and now crafts messages for ride-share service Uber
The man credited with getting Barack Obama elected US president has a new day job now, as senior vice president for Policy and Strategy at ride-sharing service Uber. And given Uber's knack for spawning less-than-favourable headlines, I thought he might miss his days in the political trenches.
But as we meet in Uber's Dubai office, David Plouffe appears equally at ease discussing Uber's present-day woes as he is talking about past presidential elections. As campaign manager for Barack Obama's first White House run in 2008, he has been commended for making shrewd use of social media platforms to energise a grassroots movement and propel a relatively unknown Illinois senator to victory.
Plouffe believes the 2016 race will be dominated by the candidate that can make the best use, not only of social media, but of mobile technologies, and said social platforms had become the primary point of contact between candidates and voters in the US.
"What's available [through social media] in politics and the private sector is the ability to reach target audiences in a very discreet way," he says. "You see President Obama now in Washington doing interviews with YouTube stars and doing mock videos for BuzzFeed. The reason he does that is it's really the only way to reach people these days.
"TV advertising is still very important; you can reach a lot of people. But I think in 2015, 2016 you've got to be thinking social first, and actually mobile first."
Hillary Clinton, former secretary of state and Obama's main opponent in the 2008 primaries, recently announced her 2016 bid via a subtle series of social media posts. Clinton has also hired Google executive Stephanie Hannon as chief technical officer for the campaign.
"She's [Clinton] got a lot of really smart, able people advising her in the digital and social space, so I think she's made good personnel choices," says Plouffe. "I know she saw the power of social media when she was secretary of state, so I have a high degree of confidence that she will have digital and social media at the core of her campaign."
But technology, Plouffe points out, is just a tool, albeit a powerful one.
"The most effective communication is personal," he says. "It's a sister talking to a sister. It's a cousin talking to a cousin. It's a friend talking to a friend.
"Pre-social media, campaigns were slower. You had things called ‘news cycles'. Now there is just one continuous news cycle, largely because of Twitter."
Because of his campaign credentials, Plouffe was described in many media reports as Uber's "campaign manager" when CEO Travis Kalanick recruited him in August 2014. When Plouffe stepped into the role in September, he inherited a message that had been lost in a din of protests and legal wrangling around the world.
"We're a new company," he says of Uber, "an interesting company. There's no doubt that journalism is a business like any other and companies are looking for stories that get clicks. But the truth is that what we're doing, which is trying to bring an innovative technology solution to transportation, is being embraced by more people every day. Because what they really care about is, ‘Is it the safest? Is it the most reliable? Is it the most affordable?'"
Some Uber passengers are not as happy as the ones described by Plouffe. In a 24-hour period, prior to our conversation, one Uber passenger in New York City received a $16,000 bill for a journey she described as decidedly unsafe. In California, an Uber driver was accused of a road-rage episode in which he deliberately ran over a cyclist. And a class-action suit was brought against the company for 40 alleged incidents in which blind patrons were allegedly refused passage by Uber drivers.
But the company's message remains constant. It is a technology service designed to improve safety and choice for drivers and passengers. It is "improving quality of life", Plouffe says.
"The reality is that Uber is growing each and every day in cities around the world because people want to drive on the platform and riders want to use it. The most important metric is ‘how do the people feel who use the platform?' And they're voting very strongly every day. They believe it's the safest way to get around their city; the most reliable; the most affordable.
"We're a global company and unlike most technology companies, we're very much on the ground, on the streets. So every day are there going to be some random stories? Sure. Are there also over a million people [carried] every day? Sometimes two million? And that will grow."
Plouffe's mantra is that Uber is trusted despite the growing negative press. He points to acceptance by governments and cites legislation passed only days earlier in Portland, Oregon, US, that legalised ride-sharing services.
"Every global company is going to have issues that clever headline writers try to take advantage of, but I think we are of value to cities," he says. "We are going to be an integral part of helping cities solve problems like income growth, congestion, emissions, and moving people safely around. And I think that's why you see so many officials now gravitating towards [our service] because they understand that Uber and services like it can play a really valuable role in helping solve some of these big problems."
In the same 24-hour period that saw so many negative experiences from passengers, over 300 cabbies in Perth, Australia, formed a convoy, organised by the Transport Workers Union, and drove from Perth Airport to Parliament House to deliver a petition to opposition Transport spokesman Ken Travers. That petition, according to the Sydney Morning Herald, was in protest of the perceived lack of action taken by the government against Uber. The Perth protests mirror other, similar criticisms, such as those from the US-based Taxi-cab, Limousine and Para-transit Association, which accuses Uber of flouting regulations and threatening job stability for taxi-drivers.
"They're just dead wrong," counters Plouffe. "What we answer with is the truth. We have now been operating in cities for a number of years [and] we now have facts and data. In San Francisco; in London; in New York; in Sydney, Australia, you see that Uber is a complement to existing transportation. There are still vibrant taxi industries in those cities; we actually helped augment public transportation. There was an unaddressed market, where maybe some people didn't live right in the inner-city core where it was easy to get a cab, or they didn't live right on a public-transportation line. So, really, they had few options. Now they can press a button on a phone and get a ride in three to five minutes."
Plouffe also delivers the same Uber message once again: choice for drivers, including those already working in the taxi industry.
"[Taxi-drivers] really only had one alternative: drive for the taxi company, usually on very onerous terms. Now they can choose to drive for Uber or [a competing Uber-like service]. Some of them choose to still drive for their taxi company but drive for Uber, or our competitors, for a few hours a week. Our low-cost service in the US, for instance, or in western Europe, [is composed] primarily of part-time drivers. You go to some cities and the driver will have multiple apps on their phone, and they will drive for whomever, at a given moment, serves them best."
Uber has, in the past sought to highlight the political nature of the protest movement and mould the issue into a different shape.
"In this debate I think it's very important to separate out the drivers from the owners," Plouffe says. "Taxi owners have had a monopoly and no competition, for as long as there has been for-hire vehicle transportation. So they would like to maintain that, but that's clearly not going to work."
He does point out that in some global cities Uber works with cab companies and provides an Uber Taxi product to facilitate these arrangements. The company's business model allows it to be flexible when it starts operating in a new city, and Uber insists that it works within different regulatory frameworks to provide its services.
Shaden Abdellatif, an Uber spokesperson from the company's Middle East and Africa Communications department, based in Dubai, tells ITP.net: "[The way Uber operates] is different here [in the UAE] than in other places and I think people sometimes mix that up. They see a story in another market and think that's how we operate here, but it really comes down to the licensing and regulation [framework] in each [territory]."
Abdellatif says that in the UAE, Uber has chosen to partner with licensed limousine companies, which become account holders on the platform and are able to dole out more work to drivers than they would otherwise get.
"A driver would typically have been outside a hotel [each] day and that's the only way he could have made income," she says. "He now can make better use of his day and instead of two hours, he can spend 10 hours, if that's what he wants to do, using Uber technology."
Dubai is now working towards a smart city paradigm in parallel with its preparations for Expo 2020. Plouffe sees the Expo as a key driver for Uber's growth and believes opportunities for ride-sharing services will mushroom.
"Forty per cent of our business in Dubai comes from [tourists] and when you look at the projections, not only for population growth, but for visitor growth between now and the Expo, it's astronomical," he says.
"So I think it's a good marriage of a city that says ‘Where do we want to be in 2020? Where do we want to be in 2025?' [and] Uber, [which] wants to partner with cities and governments and private-sector entities to help solve challenges. There are mobility challenges, economic challenges and challenges around congestion and emissions - that's what gets us up every morning, is to play a role in solving some of these problems.
"Dubai is very focused on modernity, embrace of innovation, building the model smart city of the future. It is still a relatively young city and still has the ability to fashion transportation options in a way some older cities [will find to be] a struggle."
I put it to Plouffe that, in a nation where public transport is strictly controlled by public sector bodies, a maverick proposition such as Uber seems out of place. He was taciturn on what conversations had taken place to reassure UAE officials that the US company was a sound fit for the country's smart city vision, but was upbeat on the role Uber could play in that future.
"We're talking to a lot of people - government officials and private sector - and almost every conversation I've had here has been centred on smart cities and what goes into that and that is our core mission - to help build the cities of the future."