Often, when we hear of corporate missteps, the stories after are all about what a company did wrong.
This is why it is so refreshing to see a business like Starbucks, which recently handled a serious PR issue with compassion and aplomb. Instead of the marred reputation that often follows a public relations misstep, Starbucks gave us a master class in how to admit wrongdoing and handle your mistakes. By learning from what they did right, other companies can better handle their crisis communications issues as they arise.
Many of us use Starbucks as a casual meeting place for both business and social interactions. This past April, two young black men. Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, arrived at a Philadelphia area Starbucks to discuss a real estate enterprise. However, within minutes of arriving, trouble began. When Nelson asked if they could use the restroom, the store manager replied that restrooms were for paying customers only. Nelson thought it’d be over at that, but two police officers soon entered the coffee shop.
The cops approached the men and asked them to leave. Confused by the interaction, Nelson and Robinson discussed the situation with the officers. They soon found themselves in handcuffs.
According to both men and witnesses in the coffee shop, around two minutes passed between their arrival and the manager’s call to the police. A number of patrons took pictures, videotaped and verbally objected to the men’s treatment. The pair were arrested on charges of trespassing and spent several hours in police custody.
The issue soon blew up on social media, with many influencers urging people to boycott the brand.
Police Commissioner Richard Ross made a statement to the press that only managed to fan the flames. He said that the men had sworn at the manager when asked to leave and that the police officers who responded did nothing wrong. The condemnation continued on Twitter, Facebook and in the pages of newspapers and magazines throughout the country.
Hazards for the Brand
In any public-facing business, there are potential hazards that can do damage not only to a local outlet but to the brand as a whole.
In the case of the Philadelphia Starbucks, an overzealous manager not only disrupted the day of two patrons but did so in a way that was heavily viral.
Businesses should know that what happens in one location can, through social media, photos, and video, become known to the world at large.
The good news is that, while the negative can spread quickly, the positive can, well. By responding quickly and decisively, your brand can help minimize damage and re-earn the trust of the community.
How Starbucks Turned the Situation Around
In the hours after the initial incident, things looked grim for Starbucks. Many well-known online commentators were calling for boycotts of not just the Philadelphia location, but all Starbucks. Other individuals who had had run-ins with the manager in question were sharing their stories. Publications began to write think pieces about not just this location as an individual entity, but as a symbol of racial and class divides as a whole.
Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson quickly responded to the issue, understanding that it was necessary to get ahead of the potential fallout. He immediately made a public announcement saying Starbucks was investigating the issue and was working to make it right.
The content of that comment is important: many companies try to delay communication until they know the full story. However, any good crisis communication consultant can tell you that sooner is better than complete. By responding early and letting the public know you are aware of and working on the issue, you show that you are responsive. A more detailed response can be made later.
The public also wishes to see action that matches the words that are spoken when something goes wrong. Starbucks faced the issue head-on and quickly announced that all 175,000 stores in the US would close on for a day so that all employees could undergo unconscious bias training.
This training was a valuable response. It showed that Starbucks had listened when members of the public told them what the manager had done wrong. Not only were they addressing the possibilities of unconscious bias leading Starbucks employees to treat some customers unfairly, but they also worked on a solution.
Showing that they were committed to action helped people who may otherwise have felt unsure that they were welcome at Starbucks to feel that they had a place at the brand and could safely continue to bring them their business.
Additionally, Starbucks announced a new policy: everyone was welcome in the store, regardless of whether they have made a purchase. While this was an unofficial policy at many stores, making it explicit removed the possibility of rogue managers making the same mistake in the future. Additionally, should patrons feel unfairly asked to leave stores in the future, they would know that it was the action of a single manager, rather than an unwelcoming policy of the brand.
The policy also makes good financial sense. Someone who is just meeting in a Starbucks today may return again to purchase goods another day. However, by telling the visitor that they are welcome that day, you ensure that they return in the future and that you preserve that relationship.
Bonus Points for the Philadelphia PD
While it is true that the commissioner’s initial response made things worse, Ross also did his part smoothing over the issue when he realized his error. In a second press conference, he acknowledged that he had played a role in escalating the incident. In a video statement, he clarified that the officers worked within the scope of the law. Further, he acknowledged that it was wrong to say that they didn’t do anything wrong. While he emphasized that the officers were legally obligated to respond to the report that the men were trespassing, he also said that his characterization of their response was unhelpful.
Ross realized that citizens need to feel that the police officers who serve in their communities are on their side. By defending the actions of the police before getting the full story, he did damage to the trust necessary for both officers and private citizens. However, by quickly acknowledging his error, he showed that he was responsive to citizen concerns.
The Final Resolution
Robinson and Nelson filed lawsuits against the city and Starbucks to ensure that what happened to them was resolved in a just manner. After a brief negotiation, they settled their suits for a symbolic $1 settlement each. As part of the settlement, the arrests would also be expunged from their record and the city pledged a $200,000 fund for young entrepreneurs. The men dropped their suit against Starbucks after the training and apology.
Kevin Johnson traveled to Philadelphia to personally apologize. This gesture shows a willingness to take responsibility and a personal stake in what happens in the enterprise as a whole. By showing up quickly and handing communications well, Johnson communicated that he cares about what happens at every location. Not sure how to communicate that? A good crisis communications consultant can help.
These speedy and courteous responses were what was needed to make those injured whole and to restore trust in the community. No company will ever be able to completely eliminate the possibility of PR disasters. Because companies are made up of people, there will always be departures from policy that can harm local stakeholders and jeopardize the reputation of your brand.
However, by reacting quickly, compassionately and in a way that shows dedication to being better, your company can keep trust whole and provide an example to the community.
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