Top of the Month: Starbucks takes blame and acts after race relations flashpoint

Protestors staging a sit-in in your store are calling your company racist, while your customers nationwide are blaming it for the arrest of two black men who did nothing wrong.

Starbucks chief executive Kevin Johnson: video apology
Starbucks chief executive Kevin Johnson: video apology

This was the crisis facing Starbucks chief executive Kevin Johnson on the weekend of 14 April.

Two days earlier, in a Starbucks in Philadelphia, a customer had filmed police handcuffing the men. She later posted the video on Twitter commenting that "the police were called because these men hadn’t ordered anything".

The incident provoked anger from the local black community that the men ended up fingerprinted and detained for several hours due to the store manager’s call and the police force’s decision.

National media zeroed in as the coffee giant, which prides itself on progressive values, found itself in the middle of America’s race faultlines.

Johnson stepped up, after an initially impersonal response from the brand, issuing a statement on 15 April that the incident was "reprehensible" and he was travelling to Philadelphia to try to apologise face-to-face to the men, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson.

Johnson’s clear assignment of blame to "our practices and training" rather than the store manager, was a pointer to what Starbucks would do next.

On 17 April it issued a press release and a video (below) of Johnson stating, with another apology, that it would close all of its US company-owned stores on the afternoon of 29 May in order to train all staff to address racial bias and prevent discrimination in its stores. The training would also become part of the joining process for new staff.

The measure of success of Starbucks’ reaction is best taken by the reaction from the men and the wider black community. In an interview the men said a boycott of the chain was not appropriate and that they were in dialogue with the company to change its policies.

In addition, three racial justice campaigners who Starbucks signed up to advise on the training programme, later spoke out to applaud the company’s leadership for clearly stating its intention to deal directly with the issue of racism.

Starbucks started with a crisis but successfully made the moment into a point from which to embark on a journey of improvement.

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