Comms execs weigh in on Starbucks' decision to shutter stores for racial-bias training

Three PR pros, two of whom are former Starbucks comms execs, talk about the pros and cons to Starbucks' initiative.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

NEW YORK: Following the arrest of two African-American men at a Philadelphia Starbucks, the coffee chain’s move to close its more than 8,000 stores for an afternoon-long racial-bias training session may be a step too far, say comms experts.

The men were arrested while waiting for a friend at Starbucks. The Philadelphia store manager who called the cops is Holly Hylton, whose past Facebook posts about Spanish-speaking customers and treatment of baristas have received attention from the media. The training session will take place on May 29.

Hunter Frederick, owner of crisis management firm Frederick & Associates, said the company "overshot" its response. He noted that Starbucks’ initial statement lacked personality and earnestness, which it corrected with an address from CEO Kevin Johnson.

"At this point, Starbucks should have stopped talking and listened to what their stakeholders were saying [and] how the public was responding," Frederick said via email. "Instead, they got scared in this climate [where] things like this can destroy a brand and [they thought] what they were doing wasn’t good enough."

He added that, the story now is that a big company is shutting down all its stores in an attempt to show that this kind of behavior will not be tolerated.

Sandra Taylor, former SVP of corporate responsibility at Starbucks between 2003 and 2008, agreed Starbucks "panicked." She said Starbucks probably had other opportunities to train managers on racial issues and how to defuse conflict in-store.

Still, Taylor called the scale of the effort "admirable."

Taylor, now a member of APCO Worldwide’s International Advisory Council, said employees of all backgrounds need diversity training.

"We all need training because we all have bias," Taylor, an African-American, said. "I would advise them to deal with different kinds of bias to take full advantage of investments they’re making."

She added that it was wrong to assume minorities wouldn’t have to go through the training as well.

"There is this assumption that if you’re a minority you understand and you know how to handle it," she said. "The animus is coming from someone white, but often we’re in a situation where we’re expected to provide the answers. It’s a little bit of a burden."

As part of this initiative, Starbucks is working with a roster of leaders, including Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative; Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund; Heather McGhee, president of Demos; former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder; and Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League.

Taylor said she was impressed by the group Starbucks put together. She added that the company has always been committed to racial equality and justice.

Jim Olson, who recently launched Hangar 6 Strategic Storytelling, served as VP of global corporate communications at Starbucks from 2011 to 2016. He said Starbucks’ community, diversity and inclusion, comms, and HR teams would have likely collaborated on this initiative.

"It was very disturbing to see," Olson said of the arrests. "I had the same reaction that most other good people would have."

Olson predicted the initiative would go down as a case study in best practices for dealing with crises of this kind, praising the company for showing a commitment to action after the initial apology.

"The green apron is a badge of pride and humanity," he said. "They rose to the occasion and I’m proud of them."

 "This was an isolated incident and to have all their employees, a lot of whom are minorities, sit through a training on how to treat others can seem to some a bit demeaning," Frederick said.

Starbucks representatives were not immediately available for comment.

It’s not the first time Starbucks has turned its omnipresent cafes into a public square to discuss race. In 2015, the company partnered with USA Today for its Race Together campaign, encouraging employees and customers to talk about racial inequality.

The campaign backfired, forcing then-chief comms officer Corey duBrowa to temporarily quit Twitter.

Timeline of a crisis

April 12
Philadelphia police arrest two African-American men after a Starbucks manager called 911, claiming they were trespassing.

A video of the incident quickly goes viral, leading critics to question why the individuals were arrested and whether race played a factor.

April 14
The Philadelphia mayor’s office and police department have launched separate investigations.

Andrew Yaffe, a friend of the men arrested, says he was meeting them at Starbucks for a business meeting. Yaffe is a real estate investor.

Starbucks apologizes to the customers arrested, promising action to shore up their in-store practices to prevent future similar incidents.

April 16
Protestors demonstrate outside the Starbucks location in Philadelphia, forcing the café manager behind the call to leave the company. More protests may be on the way elsewhere.

April 17
Starbucks says it will close its more than 8,000 locations for the afternoon to hold an all-hands training for its almost 175,000 employees on May 29.

The company goes into full damage control, releasing a video statement from CEO Kevin Johnson, and lining up interviews with media.

April 18
The Philadelphia store manager that called 911 is identified as Holly Hylton. Her past Facebook posts on Spanish-speaking customers and treatment of employees attract the media’s attention.

Audio of the 911 call is released. Hylton reportedly didn’t warn the two African-America men she would call the police.

Executive chairman Howard Schultz is interviewed by CBS’ Gayle King. Schultz says he’s "ashamed" by the incident.

The men arrested are identified as Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson.

April 19
Nelson and Robinson speak out for change and say they feared for their lives. They add they met with Johnson on Monday.

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