PR Failure #4: Starbucks in Hot Water

Olivia Fuller / June 5, 2018

For the last 3 months we have focused on failure in the PR and media world, turning a thoughtful eye toward events as they unfolded around us and wondering how they could have gone better. Our collective hope here, is rather than staring with mouths agape and SMH on replay, we learn from these mistakes, growing and improving as a society along the way. (Read last month’s newsletter here to get an idea of what we’ve been up to with these letters.)

This month’s focus “blunder” is a bit different, because while a mistake was certainly made, the company’s response to crisis has been on point, for the most part. Yet, the mistake is part of a larger national conversation that permeates every storefront, every corporation, every dinner table – and suddenly this company has been thrust into the limelight of that conversation, ready or not.

So, let’s talk about Starbucks, Philadelphia, and racial bias.

The Story

On April 12, two black men were arrested in a Starbucks in Philadelphia after a manager called the police reporting that two men were sitting in the coffee shop without purchasing anything. They were actually just waiting for a colleague, who coincidentally showed up as the men were being escorted out by police. Simple as that, yet not a simple situation at all when framed by underlining racial bias within an internationally recognized corporate behemoth like Starbucks.

Since this incident, there have been a series of responses released from Starbucks, starting with this tweet on April 14th that garnered plenty of backlash from angry people across the country.

Following this tweet came an apology from Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson. Following the apology note came an apology video with a call for additional store manager training around unconscious bias. These actions were condemned by the Black Lives Matter movement and the store where the incident occurred was shut down on Monday by protestors with #BoycottStarbucks trending on Twitter. A simple apology was clearly not enough. Starbucks listened, shifting messaging from “unconscious bias training” to “racial bias training”, calling it what it is, and coordinating a nationwide training for all employees, not just store managers. This was applauded by several groups, indicating a strong step in the right direction.

CEO Johnson quickly flew to the East Coast and also made an appearance on “Good Morning America” announcing the company’s plan to train employees about racial bias and meet the two men arrested. Starbucks posted about the training on Facebook, and as of this newsletter, has received a whopping 2,300 comments, with almost each original comment receiving an authentic reply.




The conversation and media coverage of Starbucks’ every move has continued, and most likely won’t slow down for the foreseeable future.

 The Lesson Learned

This situation is more complicated, but no less important that the other issues we’ve covered in 2018.  By PR crisis communication standards, Starbucks has followed the key rules of thumb: Validating concerns, taking action and attempting to take control of the conversation. However, this problem is much bigger than crossing off PR checklists, isn’t it? In our humble opinion, Starbucks has done a decent job (albeit a little late) at taking responsibility and making efforts to find a sustainable solution that affects every employee and every customer at every store across the country. Racial injustice and conscious/unconscious bias is a problem not only at Starbucks, but at stores and communities everywhere. Starbucks has the means, influence and responsibility to take action, and it’s great to see them doing just that.

Of course, one employee-wide training will not fix racial biases. However, it’s an important first step to taking ownership of the issue and doing what they can to make this world a more welcome and unbiased place. Something unprecedented to date in the corporate world. All eyes are on Starbucks right now, and every move matters. Will Starbucks stop at this training? Or will it truly step up and continue to facilitate conversation and action, turning the corporate compass towards change and understanding.

One day of training is a great start but let’s think about a year-round dialogue.

What we do know is that the world will be watching and hopefully from this shameful incident a newfound sense of corporate responsibility and action will serve as the building blocks to the better treatment of everyone.


Aaron Blank