Starbucks' decision to shutter all of its 8,000 U.S. stores the afternoon of May 29 for bias training for some 175,000 employees goes "far beyond the playbook," CommCore CEO Andrew Gilman told the New York Times. It is a definitive statement to customers, shareholders and, most importantly, to employees about how the company and its people should act. It exceeds what would be considered a typical response from any company with a customer relations issue such as the incident at the Philadelphia Starbucks in which two African-American men were arrested for trespassing while waiting for a friend to join them.
Of course there is the financial impact estimated at $7 million to close so many stores for a period of time. But this is much more than balancing revenue against good will:
- Starbucks is heavily invested in a progressive brand image and mission statement. It cannot afford an extended nationwide image and trust problem that has dragged it into the heart of and revived the national conversation about race relations in general.
- The training will hopefully have a long-lasting impact on the employees, their attitudes and how they treat customers. Starbucks is now saying it wants to be held accountable and live up to its image and brand promise.
The situation is a stark reminder of how social media can turn a local situation into a national brand crisis. Not long after the Philadelphia incident, an African-American man posted a recording of an employee of a Los Angeles Starbucks refusing to let him use the restroom immediately after allowing a white man access.
As crisis communicators, CommCore provides the following points for other organizations:
- There is no longer a purely local incident when it affects a national brand, especially one that serves the public. When planning, always assume that what happens in Vegas may no longer stay in Vegas thanks to social media.
- Today's heightened political, cultural, and social tribalism virtually ensures that someone, somewhere, will try to use a seemingly isolated incident as a national, or even global, soapbox for their grievances. The potential for #metoo must now be considered an axiom of any crisis situation.
- Just because your organization responds correctly, it doesn't mean your brand has escaped without harm. Any crisis communications plan must include what we call the three Rs: Respond quickly, Repair the damage, and then work long-term to Restore your reputation.