When I was running PR programs for one of the world’s largest asset managers, politics was a field of landmines that only a fool would attempt to traverse. Doing so was sure to result in a casualty of some sort. Either you would end up alienating your customers, regulators, or worse — both.

And while financial services firms continue to be wary of poking the political bear, as evident in their absence amongst the 120+ firms that have banded together against the recent travel ban, that too may change as companies across industries realize they risk losing customers and credibility by staying silent.

With consumer activism taking a more defined shape in recent years, this polarizing new administration has only increased the trend in how brands react publicly to the politics of the day. People — aka customers — are galvanizing around political and social issues like never before and many brands are showing their support.

With the recent travel ban as a backdrop, here are some thoughts on what startups and their communicators need to know when navigating political and social issues for the first time.

Beware of the newsjack

Newsjacking: the process of leveraging trending news to elevate your brand’s message.

One of the more famous examples of newsjacking was when the power went out during Super Bowl XLVII and Oreo brilliantly seized the opportunity to issue this tweet:


The result was more than 16K retweets and a steady drumbeat of positive buzz that centered around the brilliance of the well-timed message.

Since then, newsjacking has become an even more popular tactic in the communication pro’s playbook that has netted an equal amounts of wins and losses for brands and their teams.

Recently, Uber became a newsjacking casualty when they clumsily tried to jump on the news of the Trump administration’s travel ban. Following the ban, The New York Taxi Workers Alliance called for a one-hour period where drivers wouldn’t pick anyone up, from 6 to 7 PM on Saturday, by way of solidarity.

At 7:36, Uber announced that it would eliminate surge pricing.


Interpreting the action as Uber challenging the NYTWA boycott, a movement called #deleteUber began to surge with users criticizing the move as well as Uber’s CEO Travis Kalanick’s position on Trump’s “business advisory group.”

In response to the social media backlash, another ride sharing giant initiated a newsjacking of their own. Lyft sent out a statement pledging to donate $1 million to the ACLU.


As you can image, this delighted Lyft customers and only fueled the #deleteUber fire further, so much so, that Uber had to create an entirely new system to process the incredible amount of deletions they were seeing.


While today’s news cycle requires agility and speed, never put your brand in jeopardy simply to become a trending topic. As #deleteUber illustrates, not all trends are good trends — something this startup’s comms team should know.

Stay true to your core

From day one, Lyft has been very clear about who they are. From their bright pink mustache, to their playful brand stunts, they have made it clear that they are comfortable in their skin, and more importantly, respectful and celebratory of other’s individuality.


So, while many other companies, including others in the ridesharing space, came out against Uber, it made sense when Lyft took the stance they did. Rather than come off as a contrived way to pile on the backlash that Uber was facing and steal some of their customers, the statement their leadership issued seemed like a natural extension of their brand.

“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,” Lyft co-founders John Zimmer and Logan Green said in a blog post. “We stand firmly against these actions, and will not be silent on issues that threaten the values of our community.”

The takeaway here is simple. It’s easy to sniff out a company who is pretending to be something they aren’t. And in many cases, this is worse than being on the unpopular side of an issue. Consumers value authenticity and anything short of that will turn them off, possibly for good.

Silence is not an option

As a PR firm for startups and growth companies, we are huge believers that silence equals death. There are simply too many competitors out there telling great stories that if you don’t do a good job of telling your own, you eventually won’t have any customers to tell it to.

While the brand story and company values used to be mutually exclusive that is no longer the case. Spurred along by the progressive culture of the startup ecosystem, brands today are birthed with their culture philosophy already in tact. This means that as the brand evolves, so too do the public positions they take on issues.

So while some of Fortune 500’s giants may think that business as usual is an acceptable track to stay on, not taking a stance on some of society’s hot-button issues will only create another opening for the new kids on the block to get in. And make no mistake, once they find a way in, they are LOUD.

At the end of the day, the emphasis should be on getting the brand story right from the beginning and not trying to be something you are not with your company culture and brand.