Last month, Texas lawmakers passed a bill titled SB 8 which came as one of 666 news laws covering hot-topic issues including voting access and police department funding. SB 8 prompted sweeping media attention, however, as the bill dramatically changed abortion rights in the state.
Its passing made it illegal to have an abortion after six weeks of pregnancy and made it very difficult to challenge in court regarding the law’s constitutionality. This hinges on the way the law is enforced, which is through private civil suits against those who seek an abortion, perform an abortion, or aid in its process, which the law calls anyone who “knowingly engages in conduct that aids or abets the performance or inducement of an abortion.”
Many organizations, especially those tied to socially savvy Silicon Valley and similar startups, have a history of speaking out against policies with which they or their customers disagree with. Nationwide anti-abortion laws in 2019 saw a massive response from some of tech’s biggest players, including Reddit, Slack, Zoom, Yelp and more, representing over 129,000 people employed by their companies.
This approach hinges on a company’s priorities in environment, social and governance (ESG) and corporate social responsibility (CSR) principles. Taking a measured view of how their company or startup views its responsibility to the community it’s in or what is socially responsible in the eyes of its stakeholders or customers, an organization may choose to speak up or to abstain from a conversation regarding a new law or burgeoning social trend.
These varied approaches were noticed as the weeks rolled on following SB 8’s Sept. 1 passing, and Texas-based companies or those with a large presence in Texas had mixed responses regarding the legislation and its implications for residents of the state. The same “Don’t Ban Equality” group from 2019 saw a much smaller response from nationwide companies, with far fewer tech giants putting their names forward.
Austin-based Bumble, whose CEO Whitney Wolfe Herd has been previously vocal about gender rights for Texans, tweeted their stance against the law and an announcement of a relief fund for those who seek abortions in Texas. Match Group of Dallas, which includes Tinder and Grindr, made an internal note to employees announcing the company would financially support any team member who sought abortion care outside of the state.
The law’s provision to penalize anyone who “aids or abets the performance or inducement of an abortion” also includes rideshare drivers who may escort a pregnant person to a clinic. Accordingly, Lyft and Uber (both of which have a large corporate footprint in the state) announced the creation of legal defense funds for their drivers to cover 100% of any legal fees incurred through the enforcement of SB 8.
Tesla, whose corporate headquarters and footprint in Texas is ever-expanding and CEO Elon Musk is now an Austin resident, declined to comment on the bill. Controversy stemmed from Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s comments about Musk’s views, which he responded to by tweeting his preference is to “stay out of politics.” Still others have taken the route of Tesla and declined to weigh in on the matter for reasons unknown – be they an agreement with the law or an inclination to avoid the latest push for corporate activism.
Startups based in Texas may grapple with when and how to appropriately respond to issues in the public eye, especially those which affect only their home state, which might not be their entire market. While it’s common for tech startups to speak out about social or political issues, companies can lose track of when it’s best to speak up or when they should refrain from comment.
Here are a few factors to keep consider when preparing a response to new legislation or a social issue.
Legislation or trending issues are often outside of the scope of many tech companies’ core missions. However, if you find your company at the heart of a new piece of legislation or your key customers are impacted by a social issue, you may choose to take a stance and prepare some public relations campaigns around your place in the conversation. For Texas-based tech startups, this might relate to an issue like SB 8 if your company is a platform for social resources or one in which healthcare services are supported by your tech.
This then leads to the scope of your response. For Uber and Lyft, the decision was to support their drivers against the legal ramifications made possible by SB 8, rather than a general fund for those otherwise affected by the law, which Bumble decided to pursue. The Match Group’s decision indicated support for its own employees, which provides a stance on an issue but action which only affects internal stakeholders. Any of these routes may be right for your startup, but choosing which will require thorough consideration amongst your leadership team and employees as to the best course of action for your organization.
Customer / Market Impact
Laws like SB 8 are limited in scope for a tech startup with global ambition because it primarily affects residents of one state. Advocates for Texas companies speaking out against the law recommend this regardless of the company’s market scope or where its customers are primarily located. As such, your startup should consider whether or not your decision to provide comment is based on the issue’s impact on your customers.
Responses motivated by customer impact can be meaningful because they’re tied to the key work of your company and informed by what matters to your audience, which is core to the ESG philosophy. However, the same principles expect good social citizens to be equally charged with lending their influence and resources to a cause as much as they are to supporting their immediate community.
Stakeholder meetings about newsworthy events and your company’s role in them can add meaningful perspective to how your startup responds to an issue. These can also be impactful as agenda items with your tech PR agency, which can provide perspective to the market and your industry’s stances on the issues of the time.
Stage of Legal Proceedings
Finally, SB 8 was initially a law that gave theoretical power to individuals to pursue suits against persons pursuing an abortion after 6 weeks of pregnancy, healthcare providers, or others who are suspected to support the process. Recently, however, one physician became the first provider to be sued for conducting an abortion made illegal under SB 8.
Your company may make its decision about when or how to speak based on the progression of an issue. A startup that felt it best not to act before a criminal proceeding was complete may decide to issue a statement or send a tweet from their CEO once the verdict is finalized. As in the case of Match and Bumble, a Texas startup may decide to create a legal defense fund or announce a contribution to a support organization on an issue like SB 8 now that lawsuits have been filed.
It’s important to note your approach should be carefully considerate of those impacted by the issue. A delayed response could feel more like a “bandwagon” mindset instead of one in which your company is genuinely interested in the well-being of those involved with or concerned by the situation.