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Hell of a ride: even a PR powerhouse couldn't get Uber on track
Despite her formidable reputation, Rachel Whetstone - who departed Uber this week - wasn't able to shift the company's fundamental problems

'If she could actually fix the fabric of reality ... But when you have a video of your CEO in a car doing a live stage play of Atlas Shrugged, what are you meant to do.' Photograph: Toru Yamanaka/AFP/Getty Images

Olivia Solon and Julia Carrie Wong in San Francisco

Friday 14 April 2017 08.00 BST Last modified on Friday 14 April 2017 11.49 BST

When Rachel Whetstone left Google two years ago to replace David Plouffe, a former Barack Obama official, as policy and communications vice-president at Uber, it seemed like a promising Silicon Valley role.

The taxi-hailing app had a reputation for aggressive and even underhand tactics, and a CEO, in Travis Kalanick, with a reputation as a gaffe-prone "tech bro", but it was one of the fastest growing startups in the world, achieving a $50bn valuation (now almost $70bn) within just six years.

However Whetstone departed the company this week amid a stunning array of scandals and controversies, including allegations of sexual harassment, a video of Kalanick berating an Uber driver, a legal battle with Google over the alleged theft of driverless car technology, the revelation that Uber used secret "Greyball" software to deceive city regulators, and allegations that the company had another program called "Hell" designed to spy on its arch-rival Lyft.

For Whetstone it's been a hell of a ride. Public relations veteran Ed Zitron described Whetstone's job as the equivalent of having "two fists permanently punching you in the head".

And that's only in the last four months.

Earlier in her tenure at Uber, Whetstone, who has a formidable reputation in both Silicon Valley and Westminster, dealt with a major class action suit over Uber drivers' employment status and a dustup over autonomous vehicle permits in San Francisco, where the company refused to take its self-driving vehicles off the roads, even after they were caught running red lights.

Zitron, the founder of a PR firm specializing in tech, said that Whetstone's successes and failures in managing Uber's reputation were really beside the point, because she could not change the "brutal reality" of the company's fundamental problems.

"If she was a Time Lord, maybe. If she could actually fix the fabric of reality, maybe," he said. "But when you have a video of your CEO in a car doing a live stage play of Atlas Shrugged, what are you meant to do there?"

"It's an open secret that Travis doesn't listen to anyone," said a senior communications advisor in the Bay Area familiar with the matter. "The speculation is that it's so male heavy and toxic at management levels that even someone like [Whetstone] ... is exhausted by the machismo."

Whetstone's exit is just the latest in a string of several senior departures from the embattled company in recent weeks which include Uber's second in command Jeff Jones, who left the company over what he described as disagreements with leadership.

It's an open secret that Travis doesn't listen to anyone

But Whetstone's job was arguably the most challenging of them all: public relations and policy for one of the most scandal-hit companies in America.

For rest of article follow the link to The Guardian
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