Despite her formidable reputation, Rachel Whetstone who departed Uber this week wasnt able to shift the companys fundamental problems

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 its been a hell of a ride. Public relations veteran Ed Zitron described Whetstones job as the equivalent of having two fists permanently punching you in the head.

And thats 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 Whetstones successes and failures in managing Ubers reputation were really beside the point, because she could not change the brutal reality of the companys 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?

Its an open secret that Travis doesnt listen to anyone, said a senior communications advisor in the Bay Area familiar with the matter. The speculation is that its so male heavy and toxic at management levels that even someone like [Whetstone] … is exhausted by the machismo.

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

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

I think basically you have a Donald Trump-like situation at Uber, said crisis management specialist Jonathan Bernstein. It doesnt matter what his communicators say, ultimately its about what Travis Kalanick says. Its like the problem Sean Spicer has no matter how much he tries to spin, his boss is going to say something on Twitter he doesnt know about and he ends up looking like an idiot.

Whetstones departure this week was quickly eclipsed by yet another controversy: the revelations about its secret program known internally as Hell, which was allegedly used to spy on its main rival Lyft.

According to tech website The Information, Uber created fake Lyft customer accounts to surveil its drivers, tracking their behavior, identifying them, and figuring out which were driving for both apps. Then, tweaks in the Ubers algorithm would reportedly send more fares to drivers using both platforms.

Hell is just one of the tricks Uber allegedly used to defeat its rivals: it was previously reported that the company had engaged in concerted efforts to request and cancel thousands of Lyft rides. Uber called the allegations baseless and simply untrue and instead accused Lyft of engaging in the behavior.

Uber declined to provide the Guardian a comment about the allegations. However in a comment to the Information, a company spokesman denied that the app gave preference to drivers using both Uber and Lyft.

Robin Feldman, the director of the UC Hastings Institute for Innovation Law, said the program raises questions over whether Uber was engaging in anti-competitive behavior, but bringing an antitrust case would be very difficult.

Still, she added: Even if it is legal, at the end of the day, it may just be bad karma.

If Uber was engaged in the systematic, long-term tracking of Lyft drivers, this raises serious privacy concerns, said Jamie Lee Williams, a staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Information about your physical location over time is highly sensitive. This doesnt change just because you may be working.

Travis Kalanick and Anthony Levandowski at Uber headquarters in August, 2016. Google is accusing Levandowski of stealing trade secrets and taking them to Uber. Photograph: Tony Avelar/AP

The fallout over Hell is likely to be less consequential, however, than the high stakes court battle with Google. Ubers current director of self-driving vehicles, Anthony Levandowski, is invoking his right not to self-incriminate after his former employer, Google, accused him of stealing 14,000 secret documents about Lidar technology and taking them with him to Uber.

On 3 May, Uber will attempt to persuade a federal judge not to grant a request from Googles self-driving offshoot, Waymo, for an injunction against Ubers self-driving program. For a company that operates at a loss, and whose future is staked on eliminating the cost of taxi drivers with autonomous vehicles, the court case poses a potentially existential threat.

Its enough to make even the most seasoned PR professional want to spend some more time with their family.

Uber replaced Whetstone with an internal candidate, her deputy Jill Hazelbaker. Recruiting externally is likely to be more challenging for Uber at this time, said Silicon Valley recruiter Mark Dinan .

Candidates dont want to be perceived as working for an unethical company … especially at the executive level, he said.

Whetstone put a some valiant spin on her departure this week. I joined Uber because I love the product, she said in a statement, and that love is as strong today as it was when I booked my very first ride six years ago.

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