By Valeria Lacouriere, Director of Communications, Birds of Paradise Public Relations
When is it appropriate to share your political bias in business? My experience in public relations has informed me that, at least when it comes to PR, there’s a little more room to share it. In fact, public relations are often at the heart of everything from grassroots campaigns to presidential bids. However, there are some companies who may choose not to take a position, given the nature of their clientele.
The backlash against Uber in January is a perfect example of how it’s sometimes best for companies to avoid becoming too involved in politics.
Late last month, taxi drivers at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City staged a work stoppage in protest of President Trump’s Executive Order on immigration (which was then rescinded by a federal judge). During their strike, Uber clients noticed that “surge pricing”—when Uber drivers charge more in certain areas or during certain times of the day—had stopped in the area. The taxi drivers—many of whom are immigrants themselves—saw this as an opportunist affront to their plight. That action, coupled with Uber CEO Travis Kalanick’s place on the Trump Economic Advisory Board, led to the #DeleteUber movement.
In mere days, more than 200,000 Uber accounts were deleted. Lyft, an Uber competitor, seized the opportunity, announcing a $1 million donation to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and a swift, public condemnation of the travel ban. Inevitably, Kalanick stepped down from Trump’s Economic Advisory Board and said surge pricing, during the protests, was never meant to be an endorsement of Trump. However, down 200k subscribers, the damage may have already been done.
In my opinion, the entire Uber debacle seems like a comedy of public relations errors that could have been easily resolved with a quick response from the company. Uber obviously has an interest in remaining an unbiased entity. I don’t think Uber’s actions were malicious toward the protest. I believe Uber, like any ridesharing company, was being opportunist for profit. That’s how companies work. However, it never hurts to avoid sensitive issues—even if you choose not to make a statement.
The same goes for Kalanick’s involvement in Trump’s Economic Advisory Board. To be fair, Kalanick did step down but, ultimately, anything remotely involving Trump will be seen as a political statement. If a company wants to remain unbiased, it might be a good idea to not appear on an advisory board for such a polarizing political figure.
Starbucks is a great example of a company willing to make a political statement—without alienating their clients. In the aftermath of Trump’s Executive Order on immigration, Starbucks CEO Howard Schwartz responded by issuing his own directive to hire 10,000 refugees in the 75 countries in which Starbucks operates. He made this statement without directly touching upon his personal views of the Trump administration. But make no mistake: he turned a politically volatile situation into action.
Starbucks is known for this type of leadership over the years. While some of their attempts were not perfect (remember the whole writing on cups thing), at least they are willing to try, in a non-offensive way, to be involved in a conversation. Although, now that I think about it, there have been a lot of #BoycottStarbucks hashtags over the years as well…
I’m interested to see how other PR folks would have handled these tricky PR situations. What advice would you give companies during these tense political times? Is it better to state your company’s position? Or remain silent?