Ready or not, campaign scrutiny is coming to Starbucks

A Howard Schultz candidacy could make the ubiquitous coffee chain the target of scathing attacks for the next two years.

Photo credit: Getty images
Photo credit: Getty images

Howard Schultz, if he indeed does run for president in 2020, won’t be the only one facing blistering partisan attacks, invasive background checks, and rehashings of embarrassing moments. Starbucks better be ready for the same.

While campaign-trail-level scrutiny would be a frightening prospect for any company, it’s doubly so for a brand as consumer-facing as the coffee giant, say public affairs and corporate communications experts.  

Schultz spent three decades as CEO of Starbucks before stepping down last year, turning the Seattle-based coffee chain into a retail juggernaut with nearly 15,000 stores in the U.S.

That "ubiquitous" coffee brand will almost certainly be dragged into the political fray if Schultz does run for the highest office in the land, notes Peter Himler, founding principal at Flatiron Communications. He notes that Starbucks has faced a list of criticisms over the years from a social media uproar over its decision to eliminate religious symbols from holiday cups to employees at a Philadelphia store calling the police about two black men "trespassing" while waiting for a friend last year.

"These incidents and others can, and will, be used as fodder by Schultz’s opponents to compromise his candidacy," says Himler.

Every candidate running for high-profile public office is inevitably subjected to intense scrutiny, not only from opponents but adversarial organizations and the news media. This is especially so for candidates who have been private-sector executives, such as former presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Herman Cain. However, this time, Starbucks itself would be under the microscope. The chain could be forced to defend itself on other issues, from employee compensation to stories of small business owners blaming the chain for pushing them out of business.

An even bigger headache could be Schultz’s decision to run as a "centrist independent," likely dooming a Democratic candidate in the process, as well as positions on policy issues and remarks picked up by the press and opponents. A Schultz candidacy could prompt many consumers to take their search for a caffeine jolt elsewhere, Himler contends.

Chris Gidez, founding partner at G7 Reputation Advisory, advises that Starbucks should prepare itself for multiple scenarios. However, he says Democrats may not have much to go on given Starbucks’ progressive policies.

"If you look at the history of Starbucks, it is not like [former Vice President] Dick Cheney and Halliburton, where Halliburton was involved in a business some considered evil," says Gidez. "It was easy to target Halliburton and Cheney because of that association. The issues that Starbucks have gotten hung up on have been PC and social issues, not issues of doing the devil’s dealing."

What if Schultz does an about-face and joins the Democratic free for all? In that case, experts say Starbucks should anticipate the wrath of the far right and the ways it could try to use the brand as a political prop, especially on social media.

"They could go after Starbucks for what could be seen as socially progressive positions, like hiring refugees," says Gidez. "I could also see the Republicans trying to use those storefronts as political photo ops."

Starbucks distances itself from Schultz
The coffee chain has been trying to distance itself from Schultz the politician, but not the man or his legacy at the company. That strategy has been applauded by communications executives.

The retailer sent an email from CEO Kevin Johnson to its 350,000 employees saying as much and made the message public by posting it on the Starbucks website. In the January 28 missive, Johnson celebrated the launch of Schultz’s new book, "From the Ground Up: The Journey to Reimagine the Promise of America," before addressing Schultz’s possible White House bid.

"Many of us will inevitably be asked if the company supports a possible presidential candidacy of Howard and what changes for Starbucks," it reads. "As a company, we don’t get involved in national political campaigns. And nothing changes for Starbucks."  

The company’s comms efforts also include guidelines sent to employees if they are confronted with "aggressive political opinions."

Jaime Riley, VP of public affairs at Starbucks, said via email that Schultz resigned as executive chairman and a member of Starbucks’ board of directors in June 2018.

"As shared in the letter, we do not get involved in national politics," she added. "And, we have a responsibility to recognize and respect the diversity of perspectives of all customers and partners."

Riley didn’t respond to questions about PR agencies helping Starbucks navigate the issue, but the company’s partners include Edelman and SKDKnickerbocker, according to reports. SKDKnickerbocker has reportedly been reaching out to top officials in the Democratic Party, reminding them that the ideas Schultz is campaigning on have nothing to do with Starbucks and arguing that the company should be omitted from policy criticism.

Alexis Davis Smith, president and CEO of PRecise Communications, says the danger for Starbucks is that anything and everything that is dug up on Schultz would be linked to the brand in the eyes of consumers.

"The brand and the man could become synonymous in the eyes of voters," she says. "Starbucks does not want that."

Davis Smith says that activating its PR team to address the situation internally is the right first step, noting "a majority of these people are on the front line; they are the brand ambassadors to convey the messages at a grassroots level."  

However, she says Starbucks’ current CEO and its leadership has to make clear that Schultz is no longer a part of management and pivot back to the idea that Starbucks will always be committed to doing good through its social impact initiatives.

"It will be important for the company to consistently deliver its message that it does not get involved in national political campaigns," says Davis Smith. "Most consumers believe what they see and hear, only a small amount [of people do] the research to determine if it is true. Starbucks will have to demonstrate and deliver messages of goodwill in the communities they serve."

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