Bad Headlines Keep Coming for Airbnb

airbnbA PR pro in Manhattan wanted to make a little money while out of town over a recent weekend, so she “rented” her apartment to a woman claiming to be an active service member who just wanted “a place to hang out before she got shipped out.”

The rest of the story is, at this point, predictable: the publicist got a call from the cops after a man who was visiting her apartment for a “massage” slashed the woman paid to provide it; on re-entering her abode, she found the telltale signs of illegal activity.

One anonymous sex worker (aka the world’s most reliable source) told The New York Post that “It’s more discreet and much cheaper than The Waldorf.”

So it is. The point here is that Airbnb’s promise comes with some very unique challenges.

Think about it: the monetized “sharing” of personal spaces is inherently awkward; any company whose product already belongs to someone else will encounter the kind of problems that just keep coming for the red-hot startup.

We’re not just talking prostitution: another recent headline bemoaned the city of San Francisco’s decision to crack down on Airbnb customers for breaking local laws by using their apartments as short-term rentals; some have been evicted. The money quote:

“…Airbnb-related eviction notices are reaching epidemic levels. Just getting to the eve of a trial can rack up $15,000 in legal bills.”

That’s some terrible publicity. These stories aren’t new, either: headlines from way back in 2012 also include the words “Airbnb” and “eviction”. The solution? Change the laws themselves.

The company has been working with legislators around the country to tailor local regulations to better fit its services. More specifically, Airbnb wants to start collecting hotel taxes from its renters so that it can comply with hotel regulations in both New York and San Francisco. Such setups would seem to benefit both parties as the taxes will go back to local and state governments.

Yet even if Airbnb manages to pass these laws, and even if it continues to prove its newfound appreciation of effective crisis response strategy by putting “victims” like the PR pro in the first scenario up in hotels and paying to clean their apartments and change their locks, some will still use the service for less savory purposes.

And those headlines will not just disappear.

It’s a uniquely modern PR conundrum, isn’t it? From where we sit, it looks like the company’s reputation concerns will never cease to be a work in progress–no matter how high its IPO goes.

@PatrickCoffee Patrick Coffee is a senior editor for Adweek.