In Uber’s latest and perhaps boldest maneuver to counter opposition to its car-service app, the startup has tapped David Plouffe, former campaign manager and White House adviser to President Barack Obama, to lead its marketing and policy strategies.
Uber cofounder and CEO Travis Kalanick announced the appointment Tuesday morning, saying on a conference call that the longtime political strategist will “make sure that our story is told, and that the right outcome happens.”
Plouffe, 47, will officially join Uber in September as senior vice president of policy and strategy. His job: to change policies in cities where Uber is currently banned and help the car service expand globally with minimal resistance, by wooing both lawmakers and consumers.
“There are a number of places that we aren’t in because of the regulations that exist today,” Kalanick said. “And we have tens of thousands of consumers and sometimes hundreds of thousands of consumers who are clamoring for the way to get around that city. … We can’t wait to be everywhere, but it’s going to take some work.”
Plouffe will be, effectively, Uber’s campaign manager in the company’s self-described political race against taxi unions and regulators, saying his work at Uber “will be very familiar” to his work running President Obama’s 2008 campaign.
“But with any new challenge, there are distinctions and a learning curve,” he added.
Plouffe plans to lead Uber’s communication as if the company were a freshman political candidate, fighting a powerful and politically connected opponent – the taxi industry – and campaigning on issues very much the same as those central to a political race: transportation, public safety and health, air quality and job creation. Uber says it creates more than 20,000 jobs each month by hiring drivers, and reduces the number of drunken-driving incidents and cars on the street.
“It’s hard to deny progress. It’s hard to stand in the way of change,” Plouffe said when asked why he joined the company.
Plouffe becomes the latest political insider to join a Silicon Valley company, a sign of the growing ties between the tech industry and Washington as well as the influence of deep-pocketed tech leaders to push federal policy in a business-friendly direction. Former Environmental Protection Agency chief Lisa Jackson last year was hired by Tim Cook to lead Apple’s environmental initiatives, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was appointed to Dropbox’s board of directors earlier this year and Colin Powell, secretary of state under President George W. Bush, is an adviser with venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers.
And Uber, like Google and other tech giants, has hired powerful lobbyists in Washington to move policy in its favor.
Uber, which launched in 2009, was the first startup in what’s become a growing sector of tech companies that make apps to order rides on-demand. The service is now in 170 cities and 43 countries, but inconsistent transportation regulations – and the varying political atmospheres and influences of taxi companies – have made Uber’s rollout anything but smooth.
Although California approved new regulations for ridesharing services last year, other cities, from Berlin to Las Vegas, have banned the company. Many cities, such as Philadelphia, have issued cease-and-desist orders, which Uber has flouted, while other municipalities remain locked in a political battle to sort out how to regulate on-demand car companies.
Foreshadowing what will likely be a very aggressive campaign, Kalanick described Uber’s fight against traditional transportation providers as an “insurgency” and Plouffe as the “brilliant general” who would lead the fight. The CEO repeatedly said the company would win the “hearts and minds” of “consumers, businesses, drivers and nonprofits who are interested in the transportation alternative.”
Those fighting words come on the heels of a very public battle between Uber and competitor Lyft, another San Francisco-based, hire-a-car smartphone app. In the past week, each company has accused the other of attempting sabotage by ordering and then canceling rides. Uber has also launched a visual-ad campaign against Lyft.
Plouffe said he will commute to San Francisco starting in September, but has plans to move to the West Coast with his wife, Olivia Morgan, and their two children in the summer of 2015.