Starbucks Race Together

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz

Lessons from the backlash against Starbucks Race Together campaign can guide other brands in the developing public service PR campaigns.

Starbucks encouraged baristas at 12,000 U.S. locations to engage customers in discussions about race. The Race Together campaign featured ads in The New York Times and USA Today and posts on the Starbucks corporate newsroom. In appearances on TV, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz said he wanted to promote a “conversation” about race relations.

In the past, Shultz and the Starbucks PR team successfully navigated other contentious issues – taking strong public positions on gun control and gay marriage with little backlash. They may have expected the same smooth sailing with their race relations campaign.

The well-intentioned but perhaps naïve plan, however, hit a wall of controversy.

Criticisms were emotional and plentiful on social media. Some said they didn’t want to talk about such a serious and sensitive issue while grabbing their morning cup of coffee. Calling the effort cynical, others pointed out that Starbuck’s executive ranks are mostly white while its baristas are disproportionally minorities.

“I understand the initial backlash because you’re taking someone’s most pleasant experience of the day and running it smack into one of the most unpleasant conversations a person can be confronted with,” said Mark Irion, the president of Levick public relations firms told CNNMoney.

Media Criticisms across the Board

Commentators at media outlets across the political spectrum criticized the campaign.

Think Progress said corporations have no business talking about race. A brand like Starbucks that “manipulates language” by calling a small coffee “tall” has especially no business talking about race, it said. Entrepreneur said the campaign placed unfair pressure on front-line employees and put them at even greater risk of attacks from unruly customers.

Brietbart News said the campaign might be “the worst entry in the long history of bad corporate ideas.

PR industry commentators called the campaign’s idea noble but said its implementation was flawed. For instance, instead of initiating the campaign with ads, Schultz could have kicked it off with an exclusive media interview. The social media storm does not mean brands should avoid sensitive issues.

The Twitter Retreat

Swamped by a wave of criticism, Starbucks Senior Vice President of Global Communications Corey duBrowa shut down his Twitter account for 24 hours.

He’s a frequent, perhaps even obsessive, Twitter user, he wrote in a Medium blog post. “But last night I felt personally attacked in a cascade of negativity. I got overwhelmed by the volume and tenor of the discussion, and I reacted. Most of all, I was concerned about becoming a distraction from the respectful conversation around Race Together that we have been trying to create.”

His Twitter absence didn’t go over well either. Some people accused duBrowa of ducking questions while Starbucks baristas had to deal with customers.

Media and PR commentators also disapproved of his Twitter absence. Despite his assertion that this “isn’t about me,” his temporary shutdown drew attention to himself, a bad situation for a PR executive. And holding a conversation becomes more difficult when a main communications channel is closed.

Next Steps for Starbucks

Hot button issues prompt hot button responses. Race is among the hottest of buttons. Even though Starbucks and its CEO did not state a position on race, the campaign title implied a “let’s get along” theme. While the topic was certainly “hot” the campaign itself recommended the mildest of actions: “Let’s talk about it.” The plan, Starbucks said, was just to get people talking about race – in a place where many people go to talk. In business, “let’s talk” is the everyday phrase used to start the process of resolving problems.

Starbucks is astute in their PR and marketing programs. Their decision-makers undoubtedly understood that they were touching a hot button; they probably thought their mild “let’s talk” approach would generate little controversy. They were wrong – partly because of what they tried to do, but mostly because of how they tried to do it. Pushing employees and customers into an unwelcome conversation is inappropriate.

Ironically, the extent of the controversy helped Starbucks accomplish their stated “let’s talk” goal. The widespread publicity about the outrage on the social media has created greater awareness about the need for civil discourse on race relations. The controversy – while aimed at Starbucks — may well have prepared Americans to be more open to conversations on race relations; just don’t ask consumers to do it with employees while getting their morning coffee.

In our view, the Starbucks initiative is praiseworthy. Their stratagem, however misconceived, did in fact start the conversation. Now, will Starbucks have the courage to continue the initiative? Will Starbucks develop a follow-up plan to move the discussion forward in a more appropriate way? Maybe open meetings at Starbucks restaurants in the evening with knowledgeable discussion leaders?

Maybe publishing the results of those discussions in native advertising or a Starbucks newsletter distributed in its stores? Maybe online forums with national leaders in race relations? Maybe a race relations study guide for college seminars –then extended to high schools and church groups? Maybe providing funding for a televised PBS forum on race relations?

Starbucks and Schultz have the right motives. Now the company needs to find a better way to achieve the goal of promoting more and more civil discussions on race relations.

PR Lessons from the Starbucks Episode

From a PR perspective, Econsultancy pointed out lessons other brands can learn.

∙ Good intentions don’t always equal good results. An idea may sound good on paper, but brands must consider how a well-intentioned campaign can be perceived negatively.

∙ Timing is critical. The company’s timing — following high-profile incidents involving race – was wrong. A good message at the wrong time will be received as a bad message.

∙ Implementation is key. The campaign was criticized as too aggressive. Baristas were encouraged to write “Race Together” on coffee cups. Leaving a physical item is a common marketing tactic, but writing “Race Together” where the customer’s name usually goes was an overreach.

∙ Campaigns with social or political overtones are extremely risky. Brand marketers may believe they understand their audiences, but predicting how large numbers of people will react to sensitive issues is extremely difficult.

∙ Don’t quit. Companies can apologize or try to explain their actions when controversy and criticism, but quitting social media even temporarily doesn’t help.

Bottom Line: A storm of social media attacks against the Starbucks Race Together campaign demonstrates the dangers of companies confronting emotional social issues. While Starbucks should be applauded for its willingness to undertake a campaign for the public good (eg: improve race relations), it certainly deserves criticism for its inappropriate implementation. Because its motives are good, Starbucks is likely to come out of all this smelling as good as its coffee.

The ongoing Starbucks imbroglio should alert other companies to both the value and risks of taking stands on hot-button issues – but should not deter them from doing what’s right and good. Making social progress needs organizations (and people) that are willing to take the heat and do what’s right. Making America a better place is good for business.

Here’s hoping that other influential companies will join Starbucks in taking risks to help solve serious social problems.