THE BLOG
07/01/2014 01:47 pm ET Updated Aug 31, 2014

Disruptive Technology Merits Disruptive PR

2014-06-27-Lyft_Pink_Mustache.jpg

One of the big stories of the summer is the rise of ridesharing services. You may have heard of the major players (companies Uber and Lyft) or seen one of the Lyft cars -- distinguishably marked with a rather undistinguished-looking pink mustache.

For the uninitiated, ridesharing offers an alternative to traditional taxis. Instead of calling or hailing a yellow cab, passengers connect via smartphone apps to ridesharing vehicles, operated by company-sanctioned drivers in their personal automobiles. Sounds awfully similar to a taxi right? Well, that's the main reason they are making news as ridesharing is generally less expensive than taxis, and at the moment, it is not regulated as strictly as traditional cabs or car services. Battle lines are being drawn in state legislative houses and city commission chambers around the country. And taxi drivers feel threatened as evidenced by large scale protests in cities around the world.

The issues are significant and not just to cab drivers who sometimes pay hundreds of thousands of dollars just for the opportunity to operate a regulated taxi. Should ridesharing services be regulated like taxis? How much insurance should the drivers carry? If they are "cars for hire," should they be treated as commercial vehicles? How closely should driving and criminal records of ridesharing drivers be scrutinized?

There's certainly a public safety question here, but ridesharing would not be growing and expanding in cities around the world if it wasn't meeting a need. Cabs are often hard to find, drivers can be unskilled, fares continue to rise and the inside of many cabs are ever in need of a new air freshener. Shouldn't a simple alternative to taxis such as ridesharing be allowed within free market economies?

While being debated, this new approach to helping folks get to and fro has grabbed the attention of venture capital investors around the world: Uber has been valued at more than $17 billion by some. Yes, that's billion with a "b."

In Miami, Uber and Lyft took nontraditional approaches to PR and community relations. Uber started working behind the scenes earlier this year, attempting to modify existing laws before starting to offer rides here. Lyft, on the other hand, did what disruptive companies do best: It started offering its services without kissing anyone's ring and, well, started disrupting.

And then came the citations. Local police in South Florida started citing ridesharing drivers and in some cases impounding their cars. Undaunted, the ridesharing companies, believing they have a right to offer their services, paid the fines and freed their vehicles from the clutches of the tow lots. The battle has been front-page news in Miami for several weeks. (Miami Herald reporter Patricia Mazzei's recent story, aptly titled Car Wars, offers an excellent summary.)

I was discussing the ridesharing phenomenon with another public relations pro, and he said the companies both went about entering the market all wrong. Neither Uber nor Lyft joined any of the local chambers of commerce or made any visible connections to charities or other community groups. Neither made any friends, aside from lobbyists. (To its credit, Uber did start a Miami page on its blog site. It's peppered with snippets but nothing has been posted since the controversy began a month ago.) My friend suggested that easing into the market and making some grassroots connections might have been a better and more traditional path to avoid large scale confrontation.

During our conversation, I countered that while I, too, am a PR traditionalist, I'm not so sure that Lyft and Uber did anything incorrectly -- despite not following the PR 101 text book. Here's why: Disruptive technology merits disruptive PR.

While Uber attempted to lay some legislative groundwork, Lyft "barreled in" and started offering its service without building any bridges. When the confrontations started with local officials and police, local news outlets started covering the controversy with great verve. And this coverage drove the issue to the forefront, forcing local politicians to defend their positions and firing up the taxi industry. Throw-in that it's an international controversy and the story becomes leading local news for weeks.

If Lyft had not "barreled in," then the ridesharing issue might have continued to be argued via back channels and without media interest. Prior to the controversy, I had barely heard of ridesharing and now it's water-cooler and cocktail party fare.

And Lyft's reaction to tickets and towing has been to pay the fines and continue operating. Just as Nike happily paid fines when Michael Jordan wore non-sanctioned shoes during Chicago Bulls games, Lyft and Uber have acknowledged that there's a value to being in the spotlight -- even if it might skew negative and cost them fines and penalties.

While Lyft and Uber don't want to be outlaw companies, I believe that a disruptive public relations strategy does mesh with a disruptive brand. The long-term value of ridesharing is that it may dramatically change the way we get around. The taxi industry is entrenched in most cities and ridesharing challenges the status quo. While one brand attempted to take on taxis through legal challenges, another chose to take its argument directly to the people -- creating a unique fervor. Viewing the value of the publicity -- at levels which can't be bought -- it's clear that the disruptive strategy generated more awareness than taking a classic grassroots approach.

What do you think? Should ridesharing be regulated like the taxi industry? Or, should the new companies be allowed to take a crack at disrupting the status quo?