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After #DeleteUber: How Brands Can Survive in an Age of Rapid Public Controversy

February 08, 2017 // Z_Ben Demers


On the evening of Saturday, January 28th, Uber became the latest brand to run headlong into an increasingly common issue for public-facing companies and organizations: being the target of a fast-moving public controversy. With just one tone-deaf tweet, Uber set off a firestorm and triggered a highly visible #DeleteUber campaign resulting in over 200,000 users deleting their Uber accounts.

The White House’s ban on immigrants from seven predominately Muslim countries triggered spontaneous demonstrations at airports across the country. The New York Taxi Workers Alliance organized a work stoppage at JFK Airport to protest the policy and stand in solidarity with the hundreds of travelers detained inside the terminal or sent back to their home countries. 

BREAKING: NYTWA drivers call for one hour work stoppage @ JFK airport today 6 PM to 7 PM to protest #muslimban! #nobannowall

— NY Taxi Workers (@NYTWA) January 28, 2017

Two and a half hours after the strike began, Uber’s NYC office tweeted that it had turned off its surge pricing at JFK, and that customers should be patient.

Surge pricing has been turned off at #JFK Airport. This may result in longer wait times. Please be patient.

— Uber NYC (@Uber_NYC) January 29, 2017

Many users interpreted the tweet as a move to undercut the taxi strike and profit from the resulting stranded travelers, and the hashtag #DeleteUber exploded across social media. Meanwhile, Uber’s chief rival Lyft quickly condemned the travel ban and pledged to donate $1 million to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Uber eventually made public statements of opposition to the ban and support of immigrants and others affected (including a substantial number of their drivers). But the damage was done. In the following days, Lyft saw millions of downloads and rose from #43 to #6 in the iPhone app store.

So, how can organizations avoid being caught flat-footed when a social media crisis arises?

1) Prep your crisis communications plan to account for cultural, economic, and political factors:

Given the roiling political landscape and unpredictability of the Trump administration, companies and organizations are faced with more potential pitfalls than ever. It’s vital that brands with broad exposure to the public tread carefully around issues like civil rights, immigration, free trade, jobs, the environment, and healthcare. You can’t predict every controversy, but firms should stay current on potential gaffe opportunities and look outside their bubbles for a reality check whenever possible.

2) Focus on being thoughtful and consistent across platforms:

The #DeleteUber campaign roared to life despite Uber CEO Travis Kalanick issuing a statement of concern about the travel ban earlier on Saturday. The message was largely siloed to his personal Facebook page and was quickly drowned out when the Uber NYC account tweeted about the surge pricing without reference to the founder’s stated position or the company’s values. The result was chaos. Uber should have coordinated messaging between CEO, corporate, and affiliate social handles to defuse the confusion and anger.

3) Sentiment can turn on a dime. Make sure your message has a fighting chance:  

In Uber’s case, silence was unhelpful as the #DeleteUber campaign took off. That said, it isn’t necessary to instantaneously respond to every controversy. Companies and organizations should regularly tweak their messaging and crisis plans according to digital sentiment tracking of their brands, using online tools like Zignal or a Google search analysis. A company’s level of public goodwill can determine whether or not a careless post escalates into a raging controversy.

Regardless of Uber NYC’s intent with the tweet, the company has a rocky history of negotiations with the city and the taxi unions, not to mention labor conflicts with its own drivers. This context inflamed public perception that Uber was trying to cash in by undercutting the taxi strike. Uber’s later denial of profiteering and more full-throated denunciation of the travel ban did little to calm the public outcry. Like Uber, Lyft NYC continued to provide service during the taxi strike, but the company escaped public scorn because it reinforced its existing reputation as the more “caring” and “friendly” rideshare service with a coordinated response that aligned with those values. Lyft’s careful cultivation of goodwill and thoughtful, unified message sent it soaring up the app store charts. Uber, meanwhile, continues to do damage control and spend company resources automating the account deletion process. Eventually, CEO Travis Kalanick eventually announced he would be stepping down from a Trump administration tech CEO roundtable.


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