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Uber, Airbnb CEOs walk a tightrope in Trump era

Daniel Roberts

Early on in Super Bowl 51, home rental site Airbnb ran a 30-second ad spot, “We Accept,” that showed a diverse series of faces and flashing text about inclusion and acceptance. It concludes, “The world is more beautiful the more you accept.”

Most viewers took the ad as an overt jab at President Trump’s recent actions on immigration. And if there’s any question on that, consider that Airbnb did not decide to run a Super Bowl ad until four days before the big game.

Airbnb, still a private tech startup with a $30 billion valuation, took a risk by running an ad with a political bent. After the ad ran, the company saw a 23,000% lift in social media engagement (tweets, mentions, likes or shares), according to social data tracker 4C Insights. And yet it was Budweiser that received more overt blowback for its 60-second ad, “Born the Hard Way,” which showed German-born founder Adolphus Busch as an immigrant to America. After the ad aired, the hashtag #BoycottBudweiser began trending.

But surely Anheuser-Busch InBev expected to court controversy, and with its size ($168 billion market cap) can handle it, as can Coca-Cola ($150 billion), which made a (more cautious) statement by recycling an ad from 2014 featuring multilingual versions of “America the Beautiful.”

In the days since Trump’s immigration ban and then the temporary legal stay on the ban, it is technology companies like Airbnb and Uber that have had to walk a fine line to the public, and it is companies of this size – with young, consumer-facing brands that are heavily reliant on current sentiment – that have the most to lose by speaking out.

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick in Mumbai. (Reuters)
Uber CEO Travis Kalanick in Mumbai. (Reuters)

Uber did not step into the Super Bowl, but has been just as involved in the swirl of response and controversy around Trump’s executive order. On Sunday night, Airbnb and Uber were among nearly 100 tech companies, also including Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, Netflix, and Twitter, to file an amicus brief with the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, opposing Trump’s travel ban. (An amicus brief is added to a lawsuit by a passionate third-party to recommend action on an issue; this one is part of a case being brought by Minnesota and Washington states.)

Unlike Airbnb and other hot tech names, Uber did not initially stand up against Trump’s actions.

Uber’s reversal

On Saturday, Jan. 28, while travelers from seven countries were detained for hours at Kennedy Airport in New York City as a result of Trump’s ban, the New York taxi drivers’ union halted pickups as a form of protest. Uber did the opposite, announcing it would remove surge-pricing in order to give rides from the airport.

That backfired and was seen as a break of the strike. On Twitter and Instagram, #deleteUber began trending, as those against Trump’s ban slammed Uber for taking advantage of a cultural and political moment for corporate gain. After the pressure mounted, Uber released a statement Sunday criticizing the ban, saying it “is against everything Uber stands for.” The company also set up a $3 million legal defense fund for affected travelers.

But it was seen as a late, forced reaction, and the #deleteUber momentum kept going. Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky had tweeted his company’s opposition much sooner, on Saturday afternoon. “Not allowing countries or refugees into America is not right, and we must stand with those who are affected,” he tweeted. “Airbnb is providing free housing to refugees and anyone not allowed in the US. Stayed tuned for more, contact me if urgent need for housing.”

Over the next week, the negative conversation about Uber on social media continued, and the spotlight turned to Uber CEO Travis Kalanick’s spot on a President Trump business advisory council, led by Blackstone’s Stephen Schwarzman. By the next Thursday, Kalanick stepped down from the council. (Disney CEO Bob Iger didn’t attend either.)

Elon Musk of Tesla, on the other hand, took a different tack: he stayed on the council, but promised to press Trump on issues, and tweeted out a statement with his reasoning for staying on the council. It said, in part, “I understand the perspective of those who object to my attending this meeting, but I believe at this time that engaging on critical issues will on balance serve the greater good.”

Later, after the council met with Trump at the White House, Musk tweeted out, “At my request, the agenda for yesterday’s White House meeting went from not mentioning the travel ban to having it be first and foremost.” Schwarzman said the meeting covered tax reform, trade, infrastructure, and women’s issues.

Deciding how to confront Trump

Perhaps because Musk remained steadfast and didn’t waver, his approach went over better than Kalanick’s. But Uber is also far more reliant on consumers using it each day, and feeling positive about it, than Tesla. Even now that Kalanick has withdrawn from the council, many who deleted Uber say they won’t go back.

The different ways that Chesky, Musk and Kalanick played the difficult moment, and the reactions to their statements, demonstrate the tight spot tech executives find themselves in under Trump.

His tech policies remain unclear, though we know he has no love for Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and that his FCC head Ajit Pai is quickly peeling back net neutrality regulations and consumer protections, benefiting big wireless providers like Verizon and AT&T.

Hot startups based on the coasts (Airbnb, Uber, and Tesla are all in California, but the first two have major presences in New York) must not appear to be directly against the president, because nearly half the country voted for him—but their regular customers clearly expect them to stand up against presidential actions seen as discriminatory.

As they continue to walk that tightrope, look for their executives, the public faces of their companies (like Chesky, Kalanick, and Musk) to bear the brunt of the response, when negative. And Trump’s immigration order will surely not be the last issue that divides corporate America.

Daniel Roberts is a writer at Yahoo Finance, covering sports business and technology.

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