Uber, the once popular taxi service that comes in the form of an app, has suffered loses after protests against President Trump’s executive order banning refugees and immigrants from entering the United States. Beginning on January 28th, protests formed in airports and cities as people spoke out against the “ban” and for the individuals being held because of it. Soon after, the #DeleteUber social media campaign trended on twitter. It became common to see pictures posted of people deleting their Uber app.
So how did the much used service run into this crisis? When the protests began, “a union representing taxi drivers in New York City issued a statement refusing to pick up passengers at Kennedy Airport — the center of the protest — from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m.,” the New York Times reported. However, Uber then tweeted at 7:30 that “it had turned off its ‘surge pricing’ feature, a function that increases the cost of a ride during times of high demand.” Which meant that it was still running in the middle of a taxi strike. People were outraged, seeing it as Uber attempting to capitalize on the strike. As the New York Times said, Uber’s reputation for condoning aggressive tactics may have finally come back to haunt the company.
Needless to say, the event was a public relations nightmare for Uber. In an emailed statement to Business Insider, Uber said it didn’t halt surge pricing to traffic more business: “‘We’re sorry for any confusion about our earlier tweet — it was not meant to break up any strike,’ the company said. ‘We wanted people to know they could use Uber to get to and from JFK at normal prices, especially last night.’”
To make matters worse for Uber, competitor Lyft jumped at the opportunity, using the incident to generate positive publicity. Early Sunday morning, the co-founders of Lyft, John Zimmer and Logan Green, wrote a blog post on the company site condemning the ban: “Banning people of a particular faith or creed, race or identity, sexuality or ethnicity, from entering the U.S. is antithetical to both Lyft’s and our nation’s core values. We stand firmly against these actions, and will not be silent on issues that threaten the values of our community.” Claiming “we stand with you,” they pledged to donate $1million over the next four years to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
Fortune reports that over 200,000 customers have deleted their Uber accounts, though the deleted accounts would amount to 0.5% of total users. Because of the negative backlash, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick left President Trump’s business advisory council in an attempt to appease consumers, as many had been upset prior to this incident that he was on it. Forbes states that Uber has also set up a $3 million legal defense fund for immigration defense and services. Despite these attempts to patch up the issue, however, many are still not pleased.
This thorny event provides insight into the present atmosphere of public relations. Even though the original problematic tweet was most likely an attempt to inform consumers that the decision to turn off surge pricing was made specifically to avoid profiting from increased demand during the protest–as an Uber spokesperson told Fortune–the message didn’t take clarity or timing into account. The blunder allowed Lyft to swoop in and create a positive image for itself, made clear by the inclusive tone used by Lyft co-founders in an attempt to rouse camaraderie. With the Internet, faults are made immortal and trending hashtags serve as a constant reminder of mistakes, ensuring that attempts at damage control is likely to fall on deaf ears. This event serves as a reminder that bad press for one can be an opportune moment for another.