PR Summit: Starbucks' Meredith Bell on reacting quickly to inaccurate news

Starbucks found that a negative but untrue story required a speedy response from its communications team when it spread around the world on social media, the PR Summit heard yesterday.

Summit: Meredith Bell with Pearson's Brendan O'Grady (centre) and chair Stuart Neil (right)
Summit: Meredith Bell with Pearson's Brendan O'Grady (centre) and chair Stuart Neil (right)

The coffee company’s EMEA director of communications Meredith Bell recounted last year’s episode during a session about managing reputation in the global landscape. 

She observed that because everybody has now got a mobile and the ability to be a journalist, stories that are not based on fact can spread around the world rapidly in the social media age.

"We had a very interesting situation when the riots were happening in Turkey," she said, referencing the anti-government protests centred on Istanbul.  

"People were coming to our stores and our partners were being incredible and helping people who were being tear-gassed and giving them water and free coffee. At one point our store had to put its shutters down halfway because they were nervous about the tear gas that was coming into the store.

"Someone took a picture of the store with the shutters down and posted it on Facebook and said Starbucks is turning away the protesters. It was amazing how quickly something that was completely untrue spread. But a picture speaks a thousand words as we all know, and that went around the world. We had to be able to get the word out right away.

"In terms of how you deal with [this kind of reputation issue] differently [around the world] our Turkish team wrote a page and a half and they said people will only want to hear it if we explain every single detail.

"That wasn’t necessarily going to work in the US and the UK. We knew that we couldn’t have one single message because it wasn’t going to be relevant for everyone but we also had to try to make sure that the same thing was resonating."

The session was chaired by Stuart Neil, senior director for external affairs and communications at the World Energy Council, and the panel also featured Pearson’s senior vice-president for strategic communications Brendan O’Grady. The PRWeek-run PR Summit was attended by 140 communications professionals.

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