Uber is in trouble. The company is under fire for allegedly “breaking the strike” of taxi cab workers at JFK International Airport. The heat was turned up further when people found out that Uber CEO Travis Kalanick sits on an advisory council for President Donald Trump. The company has gone into full-out public relations mode and will likely be in it for some time.
You’ve probably read articles or seen posts about the #DeleteUber campaign. Maybe you saw how rival company Lyft surged after pledging to donate $1 million to the American Civil Liberties Union. In your head, you’ve probably said, “That’s why businesses shouldn’t get political.” Actually, the case of Uber is exactly why businesses should get political.
Uber Wasn’t Trying to be Political
People were using Uber to get to and from the airport during a political protest. Even though demand outstripped supply, the company didn’t enforce surge pricing, which some protesters viewed as “breaking the strike.” (Uber says they made the decision specifically to not profit off the strike.) Regardless of how you feel about Uber, the important thing to realize is that Uber made a business decision with political consequences.
Uber was performing its normal business, but failed to realize that it was a part of a political discussion. Regardless of how Uber handled the situation, their actions were going to be viewed with a political lens. They didn’t get ahead of the situation, so they allowed the situation to define them. Many small business owners try to stay out of politics fearing the fate of Uber, but to avoid that fate you have to get political.
Your Business is Political
I’ve read several articles about why small businesses shouldn’t get political. These articles mean well, but they’re wrong. Your business is registered with the government. You have a large stake in what happens in your community. You serve a specific population, and even if you want to try to “stay out of politics,” your customers can drag you into it. Your small business is already political.
That being said, there is a right way and a wrong way to be political as a small business. The right way involves a lot of planning, calm decisions, and public relations. The wrong way is easy to spot.
The Wrong Way to be a Political Business
The wrong way to be political is to let your politics define your business. These are the business owners that wear the Trump hats and the Hillary pins. Their business Facebook page features more political news than CNN and FOX combined. Just like you (should) keep your personal and business bank accounts separate, your personal and business politics should be separate. If you get political about something in your business, the subject should directly relate to your business.
The second, and more common, wrong way to be political is to not have a public political stance. Uber sent an email to its employees supporting immigrants before the strike at JFK started. However, it wasn’t posted on any of their company social media accounts until AFTER the #DeleteUber campaign was in full swing. If your business depends on thousands of immigrant drivers (and people who do a lot of international travel), you need to have a public position on immigration. When legislation happens, you need to have a business opinion that you can post on your outlets if you need it.
The Right Way to be a Political Business
The right way to be a political business is to act in the best interest of your employees and customers. They are the ones that make your small business and they can ultimately sink it. Take care of them first. That is what good public relations is all about.
Whenever your business actions could be seen as political, release your statement before you take the action. Uber could have stayed out of the news with one political post. “We support our immigrant drivers and will do what we can to stand with them. We turned off surge pricing to not profit from the #JFK strike.” One tweet could have saved mounds of bad press.
A Political Position Should be About Information
The quickest way to develop a good political position for your business is to inform your customers about what is happening and how it affects your business. Look past policy to the heart of an issue. Consider this excerpt from the public position from Netflix on Net Neutrality.
In the long-term, we think Netflix and consumers are best served by strong network neutrality across all networks, including wireless. To the degree that ISPs adhere to a meaningful voluntary code of conduct, less regulation is warranted. To the degree that some aggressive ISPs start impeding specific data flows, more regulation would clearly be needed.
They don’t mention Democrats or Republicans. They didn’t comment on budgets or pledge any legal action. They kept it simple. Most important, their public political statement centered on how this affects their business and customers, not how CEO Reed Hastings feels about network neutrality.
This can also be done in a more subtle way as well. Budweiser showed its support for immigrants in their new Super Bowl ad
The ad is obviously political, but they stop short of making a determination on policy.
There Are No Surprises
Legislation is moving faster than ever before, but there are rarely any real surprises. Politicians talk about what they want to do for months before anything happens, so you already know where they stand and what is coming.
In the same way, your customers can probably guess where you stand on issues that affect your business. Would anyone gasp if Chipotle supported a local farm bill? No. That’s their brand. You’d expect it. As new legislation comes up, your customers probably know where your business lands. It’s in your best interest to make sure you have a position ready in case you need it. You may want to just stay out of it, but remember, your business is already political. Just ask Uber.