LONDON — Amid a torrent of negative headlines, Uber’s head of PR is out.
Uber CEO Travis Kalanick announced Rachel Whetstone’s departure in an email to employees on Tuesday, saying she has “decided to leave Uber” and that he is “looking forward to having her as an advisor for years to come.”
Whetstone, who headed up communications and policy globally at the Californian ride-hailing business, is British — with close ties to the UK political establishment.
She’s a former political advisor to the Conservative party but left after Michael Howard failed to win the 2005 General Election.
After that, she jetted off to the US, first working for Google, before jumping ship to Uber in 2015. But despite being across the pond, she retained important links to the UK political scene.
She’s married to Steve Hilton, the one-time director of strategy for former Prime Minister David Cameron, who was credited with the “rebranding” and modernising of the Conservatives before they took power in 2010.
And Whetstone and Hilton were named as godparents to Ivan, the late son of the Camerons — a sign of the two families’ closeness. She and Cameron go way back: They worked together at Carlton TV before he first became an MP, according to The Guardian.
Cameron’s government was reportedly strongly supportive of Uber. According to The Daily Mail, officials at Number 10 lobbied then-London mayor Boris Johnson against a crackdown on Uber, then tried to cover it up when information was requested under freedom of information laws.
But a lot has changed in a year. David Cameron resigned as Prime Minister in July 2016 following the UK’s shock vote to leave the European Union — replaced by Theresa May, a more traditional conservative with little love for Cameron’s “Chipping Norton Set” and “chumocracy leadership.”
And in the US, Uber has been rocked by a series of bruising scandals.
- The company has been accused of systematic sexism and gender bias by a former employee, prompting an internal inquiry.
- CEO Travis Kalanick has been attacked over his relationship with the Trump administration.
- Reports emerged about the company’s “aggressive” workplace culture.
- The company has been sued by Google’s self-driving car unit Waymo, accusing Uber’s self-driving car boss of stealing confidential material and copying Waymo’s designs.
- Kalanick was caught on video in a heated argument with an Uber driver over pay, telling the driver that “some people don’t like to take responsibility for their own s–t”.
- News broke that Uber was using a secret “Greyball” tool to deceive government authorities around the world.
- It emerged that Uber had lied about its self-driving cars, which skipped multiple red lights.
- Leaked data showed that its self-driving cars still relied heavily on humans, with drivers being forced to take back control more than once a mile on average.
- And Business Insider’s Alexei Oreskovic reports that sources say that “attracting new employees and bolstering internal morale has become increasingly difficult as the company tries to overcome its tarnished reputation.”
On top of all this, there has been an exodus of top executives — of which Rachel Whetstone is the latest. These include:
- Jeff Jones, Uber’s president, who cited differences over “beliefs and approach to leadership” on his way out.
- Brian Mclendon, Uber’s VP of maps and business platform.
- Gary Marcus, head of Uber AI Labs.
- Raffi Krikorian, senior director of engineering at Uber’s Advanced Technologies Centre.
- Charlie Miller, a key member of Uber’s self-driving car team.
- Amit Singhal, SVP of engineering, who left after it emerged that he didn’t disclose he had left his former employer Uber over a sexual harassment allegation.
- And Ed Baker, Uber’s VP of product and growth.
Whetstone’s replacement is Jill Hazelbaker, who also worked at Google before joining Uber. In a statement provided by an Uber spokesperson, Whetstone said: “I am incredibly proud of the team that we’ve built—and that just as when I left Google, a strong and brilliant woman will be taking my place. I joined Uber because I love the product—and that love is as strong today as it was when I booked my very first ride six years ago.”
Hazelbaker has a similar political background: As well as Google, she has also worked at Snapchat, as well as on NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg’s re-election campaign and for US Senator John McCain when he ran for president in 2012.
According to Recode’s Kara Swisher, who brok the news of Whetstone leaving, part of the rationale behind the decision was a “lack of appetite for even more drama after running comms at Google for many years before her stint at Uber.”
An Uber spokesperson said that her departure wouldn’t affect Uber in the UK. Its communications operation in the country is headed up by Alex Belardinelli — a former advisor for ex-shadow chancellor Ed Balls — while its policy unit is led by Andrew Byrne.
Here’s the full email Kalanick sent staff:
I wanted to let you know that Rachel Whetstone, who heads up policy and communications globally, has decided to leave Uber.
Since joining in 2015, Rachel has blown us all away with her ability to get stuff done. She is a force of nature, an extraordinary talent and an amazing player-coach who has built a first-class organization. Importantly, Rachel was way ahead of the game when it came to many of the changes we needed to make as a company to ensure our future success—from promoting cross-functional teamwork to improving diversity and inclusion. Her commitment to excellence in every way is inspiring and I am looking forward to having her as an advisor for years to come, with many more long hikes along the Skyline Trail (attached is picture of my hike with Rach the weekend before last).
Rachel is passing the reins over to her longtime right hand Jill Hazelbaker, our newly minted Senior Vice President of Global Policy and Communications. For those of you who haven’t met Jill, her background is in politics and she brings deep experience in policy, communications and tech. She’s a great team player, terrific at setting priorities and brilliant at seeing around corners. The policy and communications function is incredibly strategic at Uber and I could not be more excited about partnering with Jill to help write the next chapter.
Please join me in thanking Rachel and wishing Jill all the best.”