Starbucks #RaceTogether: strong idea, flawed execution

The backlash against Starbucks should not deter other major for-profit brands from getting involved in well-intentioned initiatives.

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz speaking at the annual shareholders meeting
Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz speaking at the annual shareholders meeting

Starbucks is no stranger to voicing beliefs on hot-button issues – from gay marriage to politics to gun laws – but when the coffee behemoth took a stance on race relations this week, it was greeted with harsh criticism.

Some opponents say Starbucks bit off more than it can chew, or that it’s trying to capitalize on racial tensions in the US to sell more coffee – it doesn’t even have a branch in troubled Ferguson, MO for example, though there is one in nearby Jennings. And they noted its senior management is predominantly white.

Those views, however, seem jaded and should not deter other major for-profit brands from getting involved in well-intentioned initiatives. The reason for the backlash may simply be how it was executed throughout the week.

Starbucks launched the campaign on Monday, following a teaser ad on Sunday, asking its baristas around the country to start conversations on race with customers by writing "Race Together" on coffee cups. A partnership with USA Today starts on Friday and includes a co-written Race Together newspaper supplement in print editions and Starbucks stores.

Within 24 hours of the announcement, Corey duBrowa, SVP of global communications and international public affairs for Starbucks, deactivated his Twitter account due to a deluge of negative posts aimed at his handle.

DuBrowa told PRWeek on Tuesday he deleted his account because "the tweets represented a distraction from the respectful conversation we’re trying to have around Race Together." However, you can hardly ask people to engage in a conversation and then switch off one of the main channels for that conversation.

Social media is extremely unforgiving and DuBrowa found himself in a difficult position. He became the story – and that is never a good place for a comms person to be.

He rejoined the social network on Wednesday morning, ahead of the brand’s annual shareholders’ meeting, but at this point the damage was done, with media and Twitter users disapproving of his retreat.

Once the conversation on race was started on Twitter, which is a topic DuBrowa said Starbucks knows is "very emotional," it shouldn’t have been stopped. Even though DuBrowa’s account was targeted, he should have stayed on the platform as a way to show the company’s commitment to the initiative. Since rejoining, DuBrowa has once again been actively tweeting about the campaign.

Race Together was introduced to the public last Sunday with a full-page ad in The New York Times that said: "Shall we overcome?" That was followed by another placement in USA Today, and posts on Starbucks’ corporate newsroom about the initiative.

Teaser ads are a fun way to build buzz around an upcoming effort, but with such a sensitive topic such as race, it may have been more effective for CEO Howard Schultz to unveil everything in an exclusive broadcast, print, or digital interview.

He could have explained the full back-story of Race Together and how he visited nearly 2,000 staffers in Oakland, St. Louis, Los Angeles, New York City, Chicago, and Seattle to talk about race relations.

It would have also allowed him to position some key facts he laid out during the shareholders meeting on Wednesday, such as: "If a partner doesn't want to write [Race Together] on a cup, they don't have to. If a customer doesn't want those words written on a cup, they won't be. We know that creating conversation is just a first step."

The ads could have come later as a reminder to the public, and then Schultz or DuBrowa could have done a Q&A on Reddit or Twitter to openly engage consumers and show the brand is ready for tough questions, such as diversity within Starbucks’ corporate team.

On Thursday, Starbucks’ media profile had moved on to a discussion about its delivery service, also announced at the shareholders meeting – a sign of the speed of the modern news agenda as well as the fleetingness of social media.

Starbucks could have communicated better from the start on Race Together, but the brand is still using its resources to – as Schultz said – "stimulate conversation, compassion, and action around race in America," which should be viewed as admirable, not opportunistic.

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