Same Starbucks story

Your October 23 corporate profile on Starbucks surprised me, both for how it recycled - or regurgitated - some old notions of the company that have not been true for years and how it totally missed - or ignored - the company's persistent and current public image problems regarding the botched withdrawal of a coupon and its sometimes awkward relationships with employees and farmers.

Your October 23 corporate profile on Starbucks surprised me, both for how it recycled - or regurgitated - some old notions of the company that have not been true for years and how it totally missed - or ignored - the company's persistent and current public image problems regarding the botched withdrawal of a coupon and its sometimes awkward relationships with employees and farmers.

The latter directly undermines Starbucks' desire to be seen as socially responsible.

As for recycling company lore, it's false to suggest that Starbucks does not advertise. For years now, it has been running full-page ads in the Sunday New York Times and in many consumer titles. And what about when half the buses, subway cars, trains, and train stations in your city have Starbucks ads? I could go on, but suffice to say it's clearly spending millions, and the only advertising it doesn't do is broadcast.

Regarding the image problems, I think you missed an opportunity to offer PRWeek readers something substantive when the profile ignored Starbucks' more pressing PR problems and how its storytelling efforts aren't working as well as it needs. Recent issues include:

1. The botched recall of a widely distributed coupon;

2. The company's persistent fight against efforts by workers to unionize;

3. That despite their much vaunted health care benefits, they actually cover fewer of their workers than does Wal-Mart (42% vs. 48%) who gets bet up over the same issue. (OK, call that one a PR victory, though arguably undeserved);

4. The black eye it's taking now over the recently released documentary, Black Gold www.blackgoldmovie.com, which sent Starbucks into full-bore damage control when the film aired at Sundance last Winter, and which later sparked various efforts to position Starbucks as the friend to the African, especially Ethiopian, coffee farmer;

5. Lastly, by chance just this week things just got even worse for them when they found themselves fighting a PR battle with the Ethiopian government and their farmers over trademark issues. Even the international aid agency Oxfam has joined in this new anti-Starbucks crusade

As for what communications pros can learn from this, the lesson is an old one - saying the right words and small gestures only go so far. If the reality of your goodwill efforts pales in comparison to the scale of your overall operation, or if too much of your walk contradicts your talk, then eventually it's going to show, and you'll regret it. In that case, your efforts to look good may actually stir up more trouble than if you'd just kept quiet.

Notice how rarely Folgers (Procter & Gamble) or Maxwell House (Altria) get this kind of flak, even though they're bigger coffee companies (by pounds imported and sold) that make little to no effort to appear "responsible." I'm not saying "don't try" or "don't publicize" your efforts, but try harder and become a leader in them before you tout what you're doing.

Rodney North
The Answer Man - Information for the public & media
Equal Exchange
West Bridgewater, MA

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