Thursday, February 2, 2017
Donald Trump has had a busy two weeks. Even before his first official day on the job, then President-elect Trump assembled an economic advisory board. On Monday, January 23rd, President Trump held the first of his quarterly meetings with a number of CEOs to discuss economic policy. On January 27th, the President issued what some colloquially call a “Muslim ban” via Executive Order, and within days, people took to the streets in protest both here and abroad.
These protests employed the use of hashtag activism, which draws awareness to social causes via Twitter and other social media avenues. The first “campaign,” labeled #deleteuber, shamed the company because people believed (1) that the ride-sharing app took advantage of a work stoppage by protesting drivers at JFK airport, and (2) because they believed the CEO had not adequately condemned the Executive Order. Uber competitor Lyft responded via Twitter and through an email to users that it would donate $1 million to the ACLU over four years to “defend our Constitution.” Uber, which is battling its drivers in courts around the country, then established a $3 million fund for drivers affected by the Executive Order. An estimated 200,000 users also deleted their Uber accounts because of the social media campaign, and the CEO resigned today from the economic advisory board.
Other CEOs, feeling the pressure, have also issued statements against the Order. In response, some companies such as Starbucks, which pledged to hire 10,000 refugees, have faced a boycott from many Trump supporters, which in turn may lead to a “buycott” from Trump opponents and actually generate more sales. This leads to the logical question of whether these political statements are good or bad for business, and whether it's better to just stay silent unless the company has faced a social media campaign. Professor Bainbridge recently blogged about the issue, observing:
The bulk of Lyft's business is conducted in large coastal cities. In other words, Obama/Clinton country. By engaging in blatant virtue signaling, which it had to know would generate untold millions of dollars worth of free coverage when social media and the news picked the story up, Lyft is very cheaply buying "advertising" that will effectively appeal to its big city/blue state user base.
Bainbridge also asks whether “Uber's user base is more evenly distributed across red and blue states than Lyft? And, if so, will Uber take that into account?” This question resonates with me because some have argued on social media (with no evidentiary support) that Trump supporters don’t go to Starbucks anyway, and thus their boycott would fail.
All of this boycott/boycott/CEO activism over the past week has surprised me. I have posted in the past about consumer boycotts and hashtag activism/slacktivism because I am skeptical about consumers’ ability to change corporate behavior quickly or meaningfully. The rapid response from the CEOs over the past week, however, has not changed my mind about the ultimate effect of most boycotts. Financial donations to activist groups and statements condemning the President’s actions provide great publicity, but how do these companies treat their own employees and community stakeholders? Will we see shareholder proposals that ask these firms to do more in the labor and human rights field and if so, will the companies oppose them? Most important, would the failure to act or speak have actually led to any financial losses, even if they are not material? Although 200,000 Uber users deleted their accounts, would they have remained Lyft customers forever if Uber had not changed its stance? Or would they, as I suspect, eventually patronize whichever service provided more convenience and better pricing?
We may never know about the consumers, but I will be on the lookout for any statements from shareholder groups either via social media or in shareholder proposals about the use or misuse of corporate funds for these political causes.