Travel ban gives tech CEOs cover to resist Trump

In an ultra-politicized world, Silicon Valley has to choose between angering the world's most powerful man or a vindictive consumer market. Since last weekend, it's picked the former.

(Image via Donald Trump's Facebook page).
(Image via Donald Trump's Facebook page).

Large protests during the two weekends since President Donald Trump was inaugurated have given Silicon Valley executives the political cover to say, "No, Mr. President," according to several communications executives.

In particular, Trump’s executive order banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries, a move that prompted demonstrations at airports around the country, has given tech executives every reason they need to oppose the new president, says Levick CEO Richard Levick.

"Trump saying to the huddled masses, ‘Do not enter,’ is the easy note to businesses that we have passed the tipping point—quickly in just eight days," he says. "They’re now safe to respond negatively to the president. He’s reduced an otherwise complicated strategy to the strategy of ‘no.’"

Leading the charge against Trump’s executive order were CEOs Mark Zuckerberg, Tim Cook, Reed Hastings, and Howard Schultz. Criticism from Ford, Nike, Goldman Sachs, and even the Koch network followed up that opening salvo days later.

 "He can’t go after everyone," Levick says. "He can’t play whack-a-mole with individual companies. Companies are realizing the resistance will, in part, be led by Wall Street and corporate America. American ideals stand for something—and our companies believe there is profit in standing for American ideals."

Prior to last weekend, criticism from tech companies had been muted since Trump’s surprise win. In fact, some of Silicon Valley’s most notable executives humbled themselves and traveled to Trump Tower for a meeting with the then-president-elect late last year. In the days that followed, the tech community’s messaging highlighted areas of common concern, such as infrastructure and the corporate tax code.

However, the political math changed last weekend after the travel ban went into effect. Levick predicted in early January, following a boycott of L.L. Bean, that corporations and the political elite would begin opposing Trump once they sensed weakness, and that a b-to-c technology company would lead the charge.

The collective demonstration by the technology community, and much of corporate America at large, is giving companies safety in numbers, according to Carreen Winters, EVP and global chair of corporate reputation and risk management at MWW.

Winters points to Elon Musk’s "clever" approach to the situation, soliciting ideas from his followers on Twitter. The Tesla and SpaceX CEO is a member of Trump’s manufacturing council and Strategic and Policy Forum.

"Rather than take a position on the issue, [Musk] will represent those perspectives as an adviser," Winters says.

Not business as usual
Uber CEO Travis Kalanick became the face of collaboration between Silicon Valley and the White House, and his company was targeted in the #DeleteUber boycott. Demonstrators have protested his membership on Trump’s business advisory council and what they see as the company taking advantage of a strike of New York cab drivers on Saturday night.

Update: Kalanick stepped down from the advisory council on Thursday afternoon.

A pre-travel-ban demonstration took place in front of Uber’s San Francisco headquarters after Trump’s inauguration, protesting Kalanick’s role in the new administration, along with the hashtag #BoycottUber.

"The only company we see getting caught flat-footed is Uber," Levick says. "Because [Kalanick] sits on the president’s council, they tried to thread the needle."

The latest, and larger, boycott began after the ride-sharing service broke the New York Taxi Workers Alliance’s one-hour strike at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York when it turned off surge pricing for customers traveling to the airport.

A slew of celebrity endorsements, heavy traction on social media, and high visibility on traditional channels drove #DeleteUber, as did the perception that its CEO is overly friendly to Trump.

Levick says #DeleteUber shows why it’s so dangerous to "embrace" the president in a hyper-politicized climate where silence is read as complicity. He praises the tech community for being well-prepared for this moment. For instance, some companies quickly had a headcount of how many staffers would be affected by the travel ban.

Kalanick is expected to be "direct and candid in his comments to Trump" when he meets with the president on Friday, according to Axios’ Mike Allen. The President’s Strategic and Policy Forum is set to include 15 attendees. Some executives are "being coached on how to avoid being drawn into a confrontation" with Trump, according to Allen.

Uber did not respond to requests for comment. It referred all inquiries to Kalanick’s Facebook and Twitter posts, in which he says it’s better to have a "seat at the table" shaping policy than to sit out. The council is scheduled to meet Friday.

"Uber has become like Google: it’s become a verb," says Chris Allieri, founder and principal of Mulberry & Astor. "Uber’s mistake is that it’s not known for anything, except convenience. Innovative and app-based brands have to stand for something. An ethos has to be attached to it."

He adds that Kalanick’s posts on social media were "too little, too late to stop the groundswell of support for #DeleteUber."

Yet while "Uber" and "Google" have both become verbs, their reactions to the travel ban were worlds apart. On Monday, 2,000 Google employees walked out of their offices to protest Trump’s executive order. Google CEO Sundar Pichai, an immigrant from India, and cofounder Sergey Brin, a refugee of Russia, both addressed the crowd of protesting employees at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California.

Allieri believes "big, bold action will pay off" for companies that want to oppose Trump.

"People will remember," he says. "And people will reward brands they think are doing the right thing."

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