The Ethical Dilemma: Should Companies Take Sides?

We took a look at some of the most criticized corporations that have spoken out against Trump's administration to find out how their social media presence was impacted by this decision. Will boycotted companies fare well on social media, or will real-life movements transcend to their online space and perhaps even damage their reputation?

The Ethical Dilemma: Should Companies Take Sides?

The topic of social media has been at the center of political discussions, ranging from the “fake news” controversy to Trump’s hyper-active Twitter account. It seems that everywhere you turn, social media is playing a role in today’s political landscape. Interestingly, companies are no longer shying away from the power of social media. In fact, companies are going against the age-old advice of keeping quiet about political affairs and are using the capabilities of digital channels to give their brand more than a voice – a position. 

Starbucks – Brewing up Debate

International coffee franchise Starbucks, made headlines this January when CEO Howard Schultz, vowed to hire 10,000 refugees worldwide in response to US President Trump’s travel ban. Immediately customers took to social media to voice both their concerns and support. In fact, the hashtag #BoycottStarbucks quickly became a trending topic. But do these online movements really impact the long term health of a company?

Starbucks isn’t alone when it comes to speaking out about controversial topics; as of recently many other companies have followed suit. Though their stock rates declined after the announcement – social media interactions skyrocketed in terms of both praise and criticism. If this was Starbucks’ way of getting in on the conversation – it certainly worked.


We can clearly see huge spikes from January 31st – February 1st, where interactions surrounding the refugee conversation reached it’s highest peak. The Starbucks Tweet battle lead to an increase in Follower Growth by 34x in just one day. They also received 7x more Average Interactions per Tweet and 9x more Mentions.


While Starbucks stayed quiet about the situation on Facebook, they went bold on Twitter. This is likely because the conversation first sprouted on Twitter due to the “boycott” hashtag, and naturally Starbucks allocated their resources to take a stance on the platform where the social media action was taking place. The Tweet featured above was Starbucks’ second highest performing, earning more than 10,000 Likes and nearly 3,000 Retweets. The photo is plain – but symbolic, using the iconic Starbucks apron ties to form a heart. The description text drives it home with Starbucks standing up for their beliefs.

Uber vs. Lyft: The Clash of Ideologies

When it comes to politics, Uber has been making headlines from sexual harassment charges to Uber CEO Travis Kalanick accepting a position in Trump’s administration (only to later step down due to disapproval). In light of these current events the hashtag #DeleteUber keeps making a comeback.

The hashtag first went viral after Uber disabled their surge pricing during the taxi strike over the immigration ban at the JFK airport. In conjunction with the other controversies mentioned, people are perceiving that Uber is taking a political position in support of the Trump administration – and with that label comes repercussions.

The bad press has been good news for Uber’s competitor Lyft who saw an opportunity to make their brand known. They acted fast, and responded to the events by donating $1 million to the American Civil Liberties Union. This was their way of showing the public where their loyalties lie. While 200,000 users deleted the Uber app, Lyft’s downloads shot through the roof, becoming one of the most downloaded apps.


It appears, in this instance that social media interactions are correlating with real-life trends. This change in consumer behavior can is also reflected in social media behavior. We can see that regardless of positive or negative press, both ride sharing apps saw a huge increase in Follower Growth on Twitter. What’s more interesting is that before the Uber incident, Lyft had hardly gained any new Followers. Unsurprisingly, this shows the impact that publicity has on a brand’s social media presence.

Customers are turning to social media to show support for the brand, even if it is in a more passive form, i.e. following instead of Tweeting. This is evidenced by Lyft’s massive increase in Followers. Since Uber is currently dominating the ride sharing service industry, users had no choice but to find an alternative if their boycott was to be successful.

Whether deliberate or not, ridesharing customers are seeing the two apps on a spectrum – much like American political parties. Are you red or are your blue? Are you Uber or are your Lyft? Users are picking sides not in terms of quality of service but in terms of company values and actions. Social media is being used as a way to say “this is who I am”, and users are solidifying their beliefs by clicking Follow or Retweet.

The Takeaway

Of course, social media is just part of the story. It would be interesting to see how these moments in the spotlight not only affect a brand’s social media presence, but also how boycotts that begin on social media translate into the real-world. We can’t forget that people are creatures of habit, it’s easier to unfollow a company on social media than it is to change a lifestyle. Which raises the question, is social media giving people a false sense of involvement? Digital channels may make it easier to organize, but when it comes to action are the supporters still as loud?

We can see from the examples above that companies are increasingly taking a stance on political issues. It’s still unclear whether or not these statements or actions help or hurt brands – but one thing is certain. If companies are making a big enough splash in the press, their social media performance will surely be affected. So you tell us, is it better to play it safe? Or to take a risk and align your company with personal or political values? 

Social Media Marketing Manager

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