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Mis-Communicator of the Week: Starbucks

When does an issue become a crisis? Soon after a business intervenes to deal with the issue seems to be the answer nowadays. 

Maybe it is the speed at which the news stream flows, or the media’s over-reliance on social media to source comment and opinion which forces organisations to react without the right level of care and attention. 

There are many and varied definitions of a crisis but roughly they all agree that it is an event that threatens an organisation, its reputation, stability and future. 

An issue dealt with well and at the right scale will not trouble any of these. It may even enhance them. 

Last month Starbucks flew into a social media storm, and became the subject of negative headlines globally, when two men were refused the use of a toilet in a Philadelphia store. After sitting down in the coffeeshop without making a purchase the manager of the store called the police and had the men arrested. 

Both the men, Donte Robinson and Rashon Nelson, who were waiting for a meeting with a potential business partner, are black.  Their arrest caused a major backlash against Starbucks which prompted their CEO to fly to Philadelphia to personally apologise to the men. 

In addition Starbucks is closing more than 8,000 stores on May 29 to give 175,000 staff training to prevent an incident like this happening again. 

That in itself was a nice bit of crisis work doing a lot to make amends for the mistake of the store manager but also the heavy handedness of the police. Showing genuine remorse and leadership on the issue Starbucks also recognised that social media is an instigator, excellerant but also an extinguisher of modern day crises.  

Unfortunately this is where heavy-handedness on Starbucks part begins. CEO Kevin Johnson flying out to meet Robinson and Nelson was an act that met the gold-standard of a good crisis response. It showed concern to those affected, demonstrated action and communicated reassurance to Starbuck’s stakeholders. 

The coffee chain’s Chairman Howard Schultz then intervened announcing that their toilet policy was changing and they would be allowing people to use their facilities even if they don’t buy anything. The reaction to this from Starbucks staff and customers alike was negative with customers suggesting that Starbucks was “turning their stores into homeless shelters”. 

After three days of criticism Starbucks was forced to issue a clarifying statement condemning drug use and other sorts of disruptive behaviour which includes smoking, sleeping, talking too loudly, playing loud music and viewing inappropriate content. Anyone doing these things may be asked to leave the store. 

This clarifying statement will probably now be enough. Starbucks has realised who their customers are and have now communicated to them. The change of policy on toilet use was unnecessary given the excellent initial issue/crisis response. Starbucks tried too hard and was forgetting that they needed to be communicating to their customers rather than the fury-filled social-media critics reacting to the Philadelphia arrests. A defeat pulled from the jaws of victory, and a reputation diminished rather than enhanced, makes Starbucks my Mis-Communicator of the Week. 

Mis-Communicator of the Week is written by Edward Staite.

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