Blogs & Comment

With #DeleteUber, Uber faced a no-win public relations scenario

The company’s choice to turn off surge pricing during protests on Saturday angered many—but it might have been the best of several unappealing options

Sign outside Uber’s headquarters in San Francisco

(Eric Risberg/AP)

Saturday saw thousands of people make their way to JFK International Airport, to protest President Donald Trump’s newly signed immigration ban.

Some had a hard time getting there—New York City cab drivers had chosen to suspend their service in protest of the ban, while the subway service was being monitored by the NYPD.

As events continued to unfold, Uber released a message about its surge-pricing policy:

The company seemed to want to assure its users that it wouldn’t be capitalizing on their protest, and that they would be able to get to the airport without an additional charge. But the response was swift, and angry.

Several days after the move, #DeleteUber is still trending online, with articles circulating on how to delete the app. It has gained enough traction that Uber has placed a link to its statement against the ban on its deletion page:

So what could the company have done differently to avoid the backlash? Not much. On the afternoon in question, the company’s executives faced three options:

  1. Continue business as usual. The company wasn’t obligated to change its practices for the protest, and might have avoided attention had it done so. (Though it has received backlash before for allowing surge pricing to continue in situations were travellers have few other options.)
  2. Turn off the app altogether, in effect joining the taxi strike. After all, NYC cabbies were refusing to offer their services in protest. Wouldn’t it be best to do the same? It’s not that simple. Uber’s workforce is a loose network of contract drivers, meaning the company (deliberately) lacks the authority to speak for them as a whole. Unionized cab drivers have formal mechanisms in place to decide on things like enacting a work stoppage; Uber drivers don’t. Shutting down the service would unilaterally deprive drivers of access to fares—the whole basis of the company’s relationship with its workers.
  3. Continue operations, but turn off surge pricing to avoid the appearance of gouging riders in the absence of taxis.

There were no happy choices to be made here, only damage control. In that context, it’s not so surprising that Uber made the choice that it did. Faced with what seems like was an array of poor options, it decided on one that the company felt, perhaps foolishly, was best for its customers.

In the coming days, Uber will likely have to take measures to secure its position as the go-to ride sharing app (competitor Lyft is already slowly making its way up to the top of the app store list). Whatever they do, executives can fall back on the small reassurrance that, at the end of the day, they likely couldn’t have done anything differently.