Starbucks & USAToday Launch #RaceTogether Campaign and Brew Up Controversy

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A Starbucks USAToday joint campaign to unite customers with conversations about race appears to have backfired, as the company’s big roll-out is widely ridiculed.

“Easy is the descent into Hell, for it is paved with good intentions.” John Milton, Paradise Lost

Starbucks, in partnership with USA TODAY, has decided to tackle the issue of race in America.AnnieWu Quote

Launched on Monday of this week, baristas at 12,000 Starbucks locations nationally were to try and spark customer conversation on the topic of race by writing two words on customer cups: Race Together. (#RaceTogether)

In complement, a special “Race Together” newspaper supplement, co-authored by Starbucks and USA TODAY, will appear in USA TODAY print editions beginning Friday, March 20. It also will be distributed at Starbucks stores.

As described by USA TODAY:

“Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz is on a mission to encourage Starbucks customers and employees to discuss race, under the firm belief that it’s a critical first step toward confronting — and solving — racial issues as a nation. It is scheduled to be a key topic at the java giant’s annual meeting on Wednesday.”

“Racial diversity is the story of America, our triumphs as well as our faults,” says the opening letter to the eight-page supplement and conversation guide, signed by Schultz and Larry Kramer, president and publisher of USA TODAY. “Yet racial inequality is not a topic we readily discuss. It’s time to start.”

Why then has Starbucks received such a huge outpouring of ridicule via social media (and why has USA Today seemingly dodged the blast of vitriol)?

To Engage or Disengage – That is the Question

Throughout the day yesterday, thousands of social media users took to their accounts to express their disdain for the campaign. A significant amount of conversation was targeted at Corey duBrowa, the SVP of Communications for the coffee giant.

Starbucks invited discussion; they made it a point to seek engagement.  To complicate an already complex conversation, Starbucks’ own communication expert duBrowa, appeared to respond to the onslaught of communication aimed at him in a manner diametrically opposed to the campaign’s intent. He at first began blocking those messaging him, and then temporarily closed his Twitter account altogether.

In a statement on Medium.com, duBrow detailed why he took the disengagement/re-engagement route:

Why I deleted my Twitter account, and why I’m back.

Last night, around midnight, I deleted my Twitter account. I also blocked a handful of Twitter users — given the hostile nature of what I was seeing, it felt like the right thing to do. I’ve been a dedicated — some might say obsessive — Twitter user for nearly seven years and as a professional communicator, Twitter has proven to be a valuable tool for me to interact with my professional community, with media, on behalf of Starbucks, as well as “on behalf of me.”

But last night I felt personally attacked in a cascade of negativity. I got overwhelmed by the volume and tenor of the discussion, and I reacted. Most of all, I was concerned about becoming a distraction from the respectful conversation around Race Together that we have been trying to create. To be clear, Race Together isn’t about me, it’s about we: and having heard first-hand the number of stories our partners (at Starbucks we call our employees “partners”) shared with us in the open forums of the past few months, I have thought long and hard about the passion, concerns and painful experiences our people across the country have endured, and wanting to make sure they felt supported by their company.

So no matter how ugly the discussion has been since I shut my account down, I’m reaffirming my belief in the power of meaningful, civil, thoughtful, respectful open conversation — on Twitter and everywhere else. I believe in it personally, and Starbucks believes in it at the core of our company’s values. It’s this belief that led us to host a series of open forums with our partners in some of the communities most affected by the recent flareups of racial tension across the country. In those meetings, we heard loud and clear that we, as a company, have an opportunity to engage on this topic, no matter how difficult. You can learn more about those meetings, and about what Starbucks is doing, here: http://news.starbucks.com/news/race-together-conversation-has-the-power-to-change-hearts-and-minds.

I’m going to do the same. I’m only one guy, and I do actually sleep occasionally (and definitely needed to last night), but I personally will answer the challenge to participate where it’s uncomfortable, and to do so with integrity, openness, and empathy.

NPR (along with a huge host of others) detailed the strong reactions elicited by the campaign:

Over at Medium, Tressie McMillan Cottom wonders who the audience is, to begin with

It is unclear who Starbucks is aiming for with this campaign. If you are a colorblind ideologue, just mentioning race is racism. If you are racist, being confronted with “perspectives” on race will piss you off. If you know the difference between race and racism, race stickers will confuse you. If you would rather talk about your feelings about that thing that was about race that one time rather than talk about racism, you’re really going to slow down the latte line.

Think Progress says a company that already “manipulates language” has no business talking about race.

The branding of places like Starbucks are particularly obnoxious: the operation requires you to adopt a nonsensical lexicon that elevates the ordinary (calling a cashier a barista is the equivalent of calling an Apple employee, a.k.a., a glorified RadioShack worker, a “genius”). Even a small is “tall” at Starbucks. A place that manipulates language in this way should not be responsible for “starting a conversation” about anything, least of all an issue as fraught, complex and sensitive as race.

Entrepreneur says the campaign is unfair to the people who have to dish it out.

Putting this immense task on workers, even if it is voluntary, is taxing and unfair. Customers sue restaurants and attack employees over problems as inconsequential as order mix-ups. With hundreds of customers served at a single Starbucks every day, it’s easy to imagine employees suddenly dealing with a slew of ignorant, racist or violent reactions — or individual baristas making ignorant or racist comments themselves.

Danielle Henderson at Fusion was more blunt with the headline, “The Starbucks ‘Race Together’ campaign sounds like a terrible idea.”

It’s the height of liberal American idealism and a staggering act of hubris to think we can solve our systemic addiction to racism over a Frappucino.

Over at The Daily Telegraph, Rosa Silverman is concerned about the language used in the campaign.

If Starbucks wants to tackle this, then all the better (even if it has precious little to do with the serving of coffee).

But the language with which we discuss the topic is too important to use carelessly. Unwittingly legitimizing the view that humans can be divided into separate races risks doing more harm than good in the long run.

Staying silent, as Schultz says, may be wrong, but let’s make sure that if we’re going to speak up, we think hard about the words we’re using to do so.

Exposure for Good or Bad

Firestorm followed the #RaceTogether hashtag to get a feel for the volume of messaging over a 24-hour period and it is indeed overwhelming. At the highest point of messaging, there were more than 15 Million exposures. The Conversation wordcloud demonstrates the focus of those exposures; certainly the Starbucks name was front and center, an while coupled with terms the company itself dictated, it is not in the spirit they had hoped.

As Marketing and PR Campaigns go, this should be a huge win, however the tone of the conversations truly backfired. That is not to say however, that as the campaign continues, true dialogue may emerge – right now it is true skepticism – but that could change.

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What About Protecting Employees?

In creating the campaign, Starbucks explains on its website that thousands of “Partners” – the Starbucks term for employees – contributed to the original conversation and idea:

It began with one voice

As racially-charged tragedies unfolded in communities across the country, the chairman and ceo of Starbucks didn’t remain a silent bystander. Howard Schultz voiced his concerns with partners (employees) in the company’s Seattle headquarters and started a discussion about race in America.

Despite raw emotion around racial unrest from Ferguson, Missouri to New York City to Oakland, “we at Starbucks should be willing to talk about these issues in America,” Schultz said. “Not to point fingers or to place blame, and not because we have answers, but because staying silent is not who we are.”

Partners were not silent. For more than an hour, at an all-hands meeting at the Starbucks Support Center, partners representing various ages, races and ethnicities passed a microphone and shared personal stories.

“The current state of racism in our country is almost like humidity at times. You can’t see it, but you feel it,” said one partner.

Thousands more voices continue the conversation

Over the past three months, more than 2,000 Starbucks partners have discussed racial issues at open forums in Oakland, Los Angeles, St. Louis, New York and Chicago.

In the midst of a conversation with partners in St. Louis, a soft spoken young man shared that he was proud to have reached the age of 20.

“The magnitude of that statement might have been lost on many in the room, but for me, it brought to light a deeply troubling situation. For some young people in our country, just staying alive is their biggest and most important accomplishment,” said Kelly Sheppard, a Starbucks 15-year partner who attended two of the forums. “How could that be in 21st century America with all of the promise and opportunity our nation provides?”

In each forum, partners demonstrated vulnerability and courage as they shared personal stories. It was clear to those who attended, the gatherings highlighted the mission and values of Starbucks, and the partners’ desire to do more.

Starbucks customers are invited to join the discussion

Baristas in cities where the forums were held said they wanted to do something tangible to encourage greater understanding, empathy and compassion toward one another. Given their willingness to discuss race relations, many partners wanted to begin conversations with their customers too. Partners in New York, Chicago, St. Louis, Oakland and Los Angeles have voluntarily begun writing “Race Together” on Starbucks cups. Partners in all Starbucks stores in the U.S. will join them today. Partners in Starbucks® stores may also engage customers in conversation through Race Together stickers available in select stores, and a special USA Today newspaper section arriving in stores later this week.

In addition, full-page ads in The New York Times and USA Today support the Race Together initiative, which will be further outlined during Starbucks 2015 Annual Meeting of Shareholders in Seattle on Wednesday.

Race Together is not a solution, Schultz acknowledged, “but it is an opportunity to begin to re-examine how we can create a more empathetic and inclusive society – one conversation at a time.”

Starbucks Employee RiskHow would the conversations with customers start? In a video message to employees, Schultz implied that the baristas would write “Race Together” on cups but that it would be up to the customers to take it from there. “If a customer asks you what this is, try and engage in a discussion, that we have problems in this country with regard to race and racial equality, and we believe we’re better than this, and we believe the country is better than this,” Schultz told his workforce. “And if this makes you have a conversation with a customer about the need for compassion, the need for empathy, the need for love towards others — if you can do that with one customer, one day, then you’re making a significant difference.”

Schultz said in the video that he had been advised that the company should avoid discussing the issue of race but disagreed with that stance.

“There were some people that said, ‘Howard, this is not a subject we should touch. This is not for you. This is not for our company. This is for someone else,'” he said. “I reject that. I reject that completely because we can’t leave this for someone else.”

I understand why Schultz may have been advised against this, if for no other reason than that of protecting employees.  I cannot imagine starting my barista workday on Monday with no idea of the social storm about to hit; suddenly, the doors open and employees become the front-line of a protest they did not expect nor are trained to handle.

Moreover, one cannot control the attitudes, thoughts or views of employees or customers, especially if an employee is provoked or approached in an aggressive manner.  In this day of instantaneous media, do we really want to blind-side employees and have them appear as the next viral YouTube video?

No matter how well-intentioned the campaign, it is possible that Starbucks is putting employees in danger of physical, verbal, and other types of threats.

It is one thing for Mr. Schultz to personally take a stance, make a statement and take a risk; it is quite another to volunteer all of his employees to do so with him, especially if they are not aware of all potential risks.

Related:

#RaceTogether — A Coffee Cup’s Impact

Fortune:  Starbucks to encourage baristas to discuss race relations with customers

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