An iconic motorcycle manufacturer sees the President pull out of a planned visit to their Wisconsin facility when company officials express concern about a protest that could mar the event.
Ninety-seven American firms, including some technology giants, sign on to an amicus brief denouncing President Trump’s executive order on immigration.
A new administration in the White House with a distinctly different approach to governing has left many people nervous about what may come next. It also has American companies jittery, wondering how to operate in a divided political environment and fearful they’ll be caught in the crossfire the next time a controversial issue explodes in the media.
There are ways to navigate the chaos caused by a White House with a fondness for sweeping executive orders, denouncing critics in late-night tweets, and framing policy discussions in “us against them” terms. The actions of Uber, Harley-Davidson, and dozens of other firms speaking out against a travel ban targeting immigration provide some important insights on how to avoid crisis situations in the Age of Trump and respond to challenges in a nimble manner that can protect your business brand.
Be Extra Careful on Social Media
When the Trump administration signed its controversial travel ban on a Friday afternoon, the time usually preferred by politicians for dumping bad news or decisions they don’t want scrutinized, it led to an immediate firestorm of protests at airports across the country. The day after the executive order hit, cabbies working JFK Airport in New York City launched a one-hour strike, halting service to highlight their support for the protests.
Uber immediately tweeted it would halt its surge pricing at a time when demand for a lift to or from the airport was expected to intensify. The move was seen by critics as a way to break the strike and profit off the slowdown in service. Within an hour, it led to the creation of a hashtag campaign on Twitter, urging customers of the service to #DeleteUber, dumping the popular app from their cell phones. It worked and Uber’s been scrambling since to unwind this debacle.
Uber CEO Travis Kalanick quit his position on a Presidential business advisory board and announced the company would donate $3 million to a legal defense fund for drivers needing immigration and translation services. Good moves in response to a crisis, but steps that would not have been necessary if Uber hadn’t waded into the news cycle with a ham-fisted attempt to get some free publicity during the crisis. There was no good reason to throw out a tweet that could hardly be interpreted as anything but an attempt to undermine the protests and profit off a courageous decision by cab drivers to stand up for immigration.
An active and effective presence on social media means moving at the speed of the platform—which is fast. But it also requires knowing when to put the brakes on, understanding that in times when emotions run high and people are sharing up-to-the-minute news on Twitter, comments and statements can be misinterpreted and your ability to control your messaging can disappear. A missed opportunity is better than a high-profile stumble that antagonizes your customers.
You Don’t Have to Go Whole Hog
Harley-Davidson managed to sidestep a serious crisis when the backlash to Trump’s executive order on immigration threatened to damage the motorcycle manufacturer’s brand. The Midwest firm is located in a purple state, one that Trump unexpectedly won. Getting sucked into an early term controversy swirling around the new administration in Washington was not something Harley executives were looking for.
But that’s exactly how it played out. On the heels of the immigration crisis, the White House was planning to send the President on the road, to sign a new executive order or two aimed at improving America’s business climate. What looked like a great opportunity for Harley-Davidson to serve as a backdrop to a Presidential effort to improve American manufacturing was now shaping up to be an event that was going to tie the company to an ongoing political crisis involving cries of executive overreach.
Word of a planned protest caused Harley executives to approach the White House and, according to the latest media accounts, Trump administration officials pulled the plug on the visit. Instead, Harley-Davidson officials traveled to Washington for a photo op and meeting to discuss manufacturing issues.
That’s about as good an outcome as Harley-Davidson could have hoped for—not playing a central role in an event that was sure to feature questions about the heated protests surrounding the President’s travel ban, but taking part in a meeting that could be positioned as focusing on jobs and reviving American manufacturing. Harley-Davidson’s leadership team was nimble enough to understand the bad optics of hosting a Presidential visit that was going to be met by local protests and to settle for a very workable (and much less damaging) Plan B—a visit by corporate executives to the White House to discuss a topic that is central to their business.
Don’t Be Afraid to Lead
Nearly one hundred companies have signed on to an amicus brief, filed in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, designed to block President Trump’s executive order on immigration. The group includes many technology firms and some very well-known companies—Facebook, Google, Intel, Apple, Netflix, Levi Stauss & Co., Uber, Airbnb, and Chobani.
The court filing makes a powerful argument about the role of immigrants in American life, their contributions to innovation, and their importance in the growth and development of “some of the country’s most innovative and iconic companies”.
Tom O’Guinn, a professor of marketing at the Wisconsin School of Business has made the case that companies sometimes need to get ahead of issues and identify themselves with a cause they consider important. In an interview with Wisconsin Public Radio last month, he stated;
“What marketers want is to create brand loyalty and brand loyalty isn’t just repeat purchases. It’s where you form an emotional bond that changes how you process information. Most companies now believe you are better off to take a stand to make 10 million people really happy with you and create long-term loyalty than to take no stand and have 50 million feel neutral about you.”
In the case of dealing with a new President, it may seem counterintuitive for executives to take this kind of action now, essentially putting themselves in the crosshairs of a White House that has not been shy about attacking critics. But on an issue that is central to the operations of these companies—being able to recruit a diverse, talented workforce from around the globe—engagement can have a powerful impact. And if they believe a significant number of their customers will understand their position, all the more reason to step into the debate and take a stand.
The first weeks of the Trump administration have been a maelstrom of activity and controversy. Companies need to understand that this kind of chaos creates danger and can lead to unintended outcomes. It can also create opportunities to send effective messages that will build brand loyalty and positively impact the bottom line.