Yesterday — barely 24 hours after we published a first-person essay critical of Uber — L.A. Weekly's editorial assistant was contacted by a stranger offering a first-person essay about how great Uber is.
It was kind of strange. It was purportedly written by a former taxi driver named Cabdi Xuseen (“Confessions of a Former L.A. Taxi Driver,” the title read), but it came from the email of a different person, someone with the improbable name of Tawny Valentine. “This piece is exclusive to the L.A. Weekly and we hope that you would consider placing it,” Valentine wrote.
See also: Confessions of an Uber Driver
A former cab driver with his own PR handler? Curious.
The essay was all about how great it was working for Uber. “I’ve driven a lot of things for a lot of different people throughout my career: taxis, limos, and even 18-wheel trucks. But now, I drive for myself, with Uber. I get to be my own boss. I make my own hours. My car is my small business, and I am free to run it as I see fit.”
Our editorial assistant emailed Valentine back. Normally, she told her, we hear from writers directly. What was her relationship with Xuseen? Valentine dodged the question, but sent us Xuseen's cell, explaining, “Cadbi saw the piece that ran yesterday and wanted to author a response.”
Naturally, we called Xuseen. And he had a different story. Valentine had contacted him. He didn't seem to have seen our piece at all. Instead, she'd reached out to him because he was one of Uber's top-rated drivers — 4.87 out of 5 stars, he told us proudly.
So we emailed Valentine again. She reached out to him? Who was she working for?
Only then did the truth come out. “We work with Uber.”
In other words:
Uber saw our first-person essay from a disgruntled driver, which was published at 7 a.m. on Monday. By 12:47 p.m. Tuesday, Uber's PR team had already tracked down a top-rated driver, interviewed him and turned his life story in a neatly phrased 520 word essay, offered exclusively to this newspaper.
Damn they're good!
For the record, so is Xuseen. He told us a story we couldn't help swooning over — a Somali immigrant, he has five kids and loves the flexibility and freedom he gets from Uber. He's also a golf coach (when we called him, he was at Rancho Park golf course). He's living the dream.
But we're increasingly disconcerted by PR people bearing gifts. Last year we were contacted by a “freelance writer” who'd written an expose about a local hospital. We did a little digging, and it turned out he was part of a PR group that had been hired by a nurse's union. Their goal? Bringing the hospital to its knees.
We didn't publish that one, and we won't publish this one either.
Cabdi Xuseen may have a great story, but it's hard to trust anything being peddled by a PR team that doesn't disclose that fact immediately and up front. We may not have billions in venture capital, but we still have some principles.
With reporting assistance from Jennifer Swann.
Follow the writer on Twitter @sarahfenske