Anyone who checked their Facebook or Twitter feed in the last few days of January undoubtedly noticed the trending hashtag #DeleteUber. The global ride-hailing company is no stranger to PR firestorms. Uber has successfully swept into new markets all over the world in recent years, upsetting local taxi drivers and some governments in the process. But this time, the tech darling has unwittingly been caught in a political firestorm in its own backyard. The backlash was sparked after Uber lowered prices during a boycott of New York taxi drivers protesting U.S. President Donald Trump’s controversial immigration ban. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick insisted the move wasn’t an attempt to profit from the protests, publicly decrying the president’s order and even setting up a $3-billion fund to help affected drivers— but the damage was done. So many angry customers asked to cancel their accounts that Uber had to set up an automated system to handle the volume.
Once, companies that knew what was good for them simply stayed out of the political fray—at least publicly. After all, what’s to be gained from a corporation taking a stand that inevitably either infuriates much of its customer base or the government that regulates and taxes it? In the days after President Trump’s Jan. 27 executive order closing U.S. borders to refugees and immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries, calls flew back and forth between America’s top CEOs about how to respond to the order, reported The New York Times. Tech executives in particular loudly assailed the ban. Microsoft, Amazon, Expedia and Apple, among others, stressed that Silicon Valley is and always has been dependent on immigrant labor, like most other American industries. The response from older, more traditional sectors was more mixed, with Chevron and Walmart issuing circumspect statements like: “We’re closely monitoring the situation,” while all the big telecoms simply said “No comment.” But there were a number of notable exceptions: Such corporate establishment mainstays as Coca-Cola, Ford and Nike all publicly opposed the president’s order. Even Goldman Sachs, the investment bank from which Trump tapped several of his top aides, has come out against it.
What’s clear is that staying neutral isn’t as simple as it used to be. Multinational companies now operate in a globalized reality in which perceptions—good or bad—can spread like wildfire via the internet. Last fall, John Chipman, head of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, floated the notion that today “every company needs a foreign policy.” In the future, businesses may also have to think about having a moral policy, too.