Can a company succeed with a toxic reputation?

Editor’s Note: Going Global showcases entrepreneurs taking their businesses around the world, tackling issues like business strategy, marketing and international logistics

Story highlights

Uber is under a barrage of fire but business is booming for the start-up

Companies can afford to ignore some critics, and may even benefit from attacks

Ryanair, Wal-Mart, Ashley Madison among the companies to succeed despite image issues

Uber will face more severe problems if its doesn't shake up its leadership

CNN  — 

Uber’s route to the top has been pockmarked with scandal, from its acrobatic approach to transport regulations to the alleged misogyny of CEO Travis Kalanick.

But fresh claims that the company puts journalists and users under surveillance, and appropriates their data, could pose an existential threat.

The taxi-disrupting service has faced a severe backlash, with analysts and bloggers excoriating the company culture, and the viral campaign #deleteuber thriving across social platforms.

In response to the battering, the “most arrogant startup in Silicon Valley” has been forced onto the defensive. Representatives are emphasizing customer care and community values at the heart of their mission, breaking with their ruthless image.

But if bad publicity has darkened Uber’s name it has not damaged its performance. After its latest round of funding, the company is valued at around $40 billion, and the service has expanded its availability from 60 cities in 2013 to over 200 today.

“At this point it’s a reputation crisis but is not specific to the job they are doing,” says Dr. Audra Diers-Lawson, a specialist in crisis management at the University of Manchester. “The reason Uber is still growing is that people still view them as a good service. If there was a problem with the rides we would see a much more immediate effect.”

Audra compares the situation with BP’s plummeting stock in the wake of the Gulf of Mexico spill – “a material crisis, related to their primary function” – that is still depressing the company’s performance several years later.

Uber’s crisis is far from unique. In a digital age, reputation has never been harder to safeguard.

“Social media has made the world more transparent so bad news travels faster and spreads further,” says Jonathan Hemus, founder of reputation management company Insignia Communications. “I would say reputation risk is higher than ever before.”

Given the volume of online opinion, much of it from anonymous critics that could be trolls or competitors in disguise, companies need not always take heed of it.

“Sometimes its better to let it go away,” says Justin Fox, executive editor of the Harvard Business Review. “Large, established organizations can ignore petty complaints but must decide who to pay attention to. Every company checks the Klout of its critics.”

In some cases, companies have chosen to court controversy and prospered, such as with Ryanair and its combative Chief Executive Michael O’ Leary who has often seemed to