Uber has in recent weeks sought to hire opposition researchers to "weaponize facts" to use against its taxi industry competition, according to a confidential recruiting document obtained by BuzzFeed News and confirmed by the company.
Uber is facing wide public criticism after BuzzFeed News reported that an executive floated the idea of hiring opposition readers to dig dirt on reporters. The aggressively-phrased recruiting document makes no mention of targeting the press, and is instead focused on "our opponents in the transportation industry." A spokesperson, Kristin Carvell, said the executive, Emil Michael, was not referring to these plans to hire opposition researchers when he spoke of hiring opposition researchers to focus on reporters.
"Emil's reported comments had no connection to the reality of how we do and will operate," she said.
The new role of director of research and rapid response appears to be part of Uber's effort to bring the aggressive tactics of American presidential politics to its city-by-city trench wars with existing car companies. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick said in May that the company has no choice but to "throw mud" at taxi companies and the associations that represent the taxi industry, and in August brought former Obama campaign manager David Plouffe to the company to lead a campaign-like effort that now includes both Uber's communications shop and the new opposition research role.
"Uber is the candidate and [the opponent] is an asshole called Taxi," Kalanick told Re/code's Kara Swisher in May. "I'm not totally comfortable with it but we have to bring out the truth of how evil Taxi is."
Plouffe cast his new role in combative terms in an interview with Bloomberg News on August 19, saying he would be "fighting for the transportation alternative Uber represents."
This week, however, Kalanick appeared to moderate Uber's public tone and suggest that its communications strategy should be focused not on conflict but on "appealing to people's hearts and minds."
"We must be open and vulnerable enough to show people the positive principles that are the core of Uber's culture," he tweeted. "We must tell the stories of progress Uber has brought to cities and show the [sic] our constituents that we are principled and mean well."
The recruiting document strikes a notably less positive tone. It is framed as two exercises job candidates must complete as part of the hiring process, including laying out a six-month research plan that includes "both 'self' and 'oppo' with a greater focus on 'oppo.'"
"Oppo" is political campaign shorthand for opposition research, a practice that typically includes searches of public records and published reports, but which may also extend to videotaped tracking of foes and more aggressive investigative tactics.
"Your mission is to identify and weaponize the facts about those incumbents, the truth about Uber and to do it one step ahead of the rest," the document says.
"Once we have the research, we have to weaponize and disseminate it. That's where a rapid response operation comes in working closely with our comms team. Please outline your recommended approach for a successful rapid response effort that seeks to set the record straight on both Uber and our opponents," the document later reads.
An Uber spokesperson, Kristin Carvell, offered this definition of the word "weaponize": "It means distilling sometimes dense or lengthy information (e.g. 75-page research reports, political contribution reports) into factual, bulleted points."
The recruiting document was provided to BuzzFeed News by a source who chose to leak it, the source said, after being disturbed by recent reports on Uber's aggressive business practice. The source shared the document on the condition it not be posted in full; Uber provided BuzzFeed News a word-for-word identical version of the document with only a recruiter's name deleted.
Carvell cast the new team in a far more positive light than does the recruiting document. She said that the goal of the position will be "producing research that helps communicate the Uber story — how we serve riders, drivers, and cities — and that makes the facts clear about the taxi opposition." She went on to blame the industry for making that roll necessary by "waging multimillion-dollar campaigns and hiring PR firms, consultants, etc., to disseminate often inaccurate information about Uber."
Uber's main organized foe is the Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association, which has attacked Uber under the rubric, "Who's Driving You?"
Carvell said the decision in the past few months to hire an opposition and rapid response team is "not newsworthy."
"Organizations, corporations, campaigns, etc have hired for a role of this nature and continue to," she said, adding that they hadn't filled the role.
Carvell declined to comment on the size of the proposed rapid response operation.
"We don't share future potential hiring plans," she said.