Guest Column: Starbucks backs its words with actions

Direct response to crisis shows companies how best to react
Pedestrians pass near the Starbucks where two black men were arrested on suspicion of trespassing in Philadelphia.
Pedestrians pass near the Starbucks where two black men were arrested on suspicion of trespassing in Philadelphia.

Actions speak louder than words.

Just ask Starbucks about the value of this old adage.

The large coffee house company is driving home a lesson many of us learned when we were young.

To learn about responsibility and accountability, teachers, mentors, parents, and others employed this old saying to help us understand what we needed to do when something went wrong.

In situations ranging from merely uncomfortable circumstances with a friend or family member to a crisis that threatens the very future of an organization, we needed to know that words—regardless of how meaningful or eloquent they might be—won’t deliver a message effectively unless they are backed with actions.

Nowhere is this adage more true than in the breakneck, relentlessly competitive world of retail marketing and corporate America.

Sure, go ahead and hire the best PR people and speechwriters, but don’t expect your message to take root unless the communication is accompanied by actions, some of which might cause short-term financial loss.

Time and time again, the strategy has proven to deliver positive results over the long term.

The recent incident in a Philadelphia Starbucks coffee shop is a great example.

After asking to use the bathroom and being refused, two African-American men were told to leave the restaurant.

They didn’t.

Instead, they remained, waiting peacefully for a friend.

A Starbucks employee called police and the two men were arrested and removed without incident.

Bystanders repeatedly asked police what the men had done wrong and of course recorded the incident with their smartphones.

The videos, pictures, and news stories went viral, causing a massive crisis for the nationwide coffee house company.

It didn’t matter that both men were later released without charges. Anger at Starbucks continued to grow.

Three days after the incident, the Starbucks CEO released a heartfelt apology.

He admitted wrongdoing and promised to take the necessary steps to ensure such an incident wouldn’t happen again.

But where other corporations might have handled the crisis with a “duck and cover” approach, Starbucks attacked it head on.

They announced last week that they will close some 8,000 stores for a half day May 29 to conduct racial bias training with employees.

That’s a bold move that tells the world Starbucks is dead serious about learning from the incident and using it to change corporate culture and practices. The decision could cost Starbucks millions in lost revenue.

The MarketWatch online news site estimated the amount at $12 million.

[Starbucks to close more than 8,000 stores for racial-bias education]

In its announcement, Starbucks also said it would work with the Anti-Defamation League and the NAACP.

No one can predict if Starbucks’ words and actions will work.

This incident has severely dinged the reputation of a company that previously was known for social and environmental responsibility.

Those who study crisis communications know that swift responses, meaningful apologies where a company admits wrongdoing, and substantive actions to address the situation and prevent it from happening again are a sound basis upon which to begin restoring a reputation.

Reputation management shouldn’t be the only goal, though.

Crises such as these—including last year’s United Airlines customer-dragging incident—highlight isolated disconnects between the actions of frontline employees and the customer-centric values companies have developed and successfully used over the years.

Perhaps the poor stepchild of some company PR programs — ongoing employee communications — needs to be strengthened.

Whatever the solutions to these problems might be,  and whether Starbucks’ strategy will work over the long haul, the company has for now demonstrated that the value and truth of old adages that helped us grow to be responsible adults are still important—even for complex, worldwide companies that generate over $22 billion in annual revenue.

Give credit where credit is due: Starbucks has taken ownership of the situation and is beginning to take the right steps to fix what went wrong on that afternoon in Philadelphia.

Mark Marchand, a former senior manager in public relations at Verizon, is an adjunct professor in the journalism program at the University at Albany, where he teaches crisis communications and other courses.

Categories: Editorial, Opinion


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