Starbucks Initiative on Race Relations Draws Attacks Online
Sydney Ember | The New York Times
Scrawled on Starbucks cups, the words “Race Together” were intended to stimulate conversations about race relations in America, beginning just days before the company’s annual shareholders meeting on Wednesday. But the coffee company’s campaign has instead unleashed widespread vitriol and derision.
The company effort, which began this week, lit up social media, drawing criticism and skepticism. The attacks grew so hostile that Corey duBrowa, the senior vice president for global communications at Starbucks, temporarily deleted his Twitter account on Monday. “Last night I felt personally attacked in a cascade of negativity,” Mr. duBrowa wrote in a post on Medium on Tuesday.
The fury and confusion boiled down to a simple question: What was Starbucks thinking?
Reactions have ranged from video parodies of customer interactions with baristas to some hostile online attacks aimed at corporate executives. Many have pointed out that the company’s leadership is predominantly white, while many of its baristas are members of minorities.
Others pleaded for a more traditional relationship with the businesses they patronize.
Gwen Ifill, the co-anchor of “PBS NewsHour,” wrote in a tweet on Tuesday: “Honest to God, if you start to engage me in a race conversation before I’ve had my morning coffee, it will not end well.”
At the Wednesday gathering in Seattle, Howard D. Schultz, the chief executive of Starbucks, addressed the nascent public relations campaign accompanied by the stagecraft of African-American guest speakers like the Academy Award winner Common and ending with Jennifer Hudson’s rousing rendition of “Hallelujah” at the close of the presentation.
“Race is an unorthodox and even uncomfortable topic for an annual meeting,” he acknowledged. “Where others see costs, risks, excuses and hopelessness, we see and create pathways of opportunity — that is the role and responsibility of a for-profit, public company.”
Mellody Hobson, the president of Ariel Investments and an African-American member of the Starbucks board, was one of the featured faces of the campaign, speaking for about 15 minutes on the importance of discussing race. In talking about how difficult it can be to discuss race in public, she referred twice to the previous 24 hours as an example of such difficulty, apparently an allusion to the groundswell of criticism.
Neither Mr. Schultz nor Ms. Hobson altered their planned remarks to respond to the criticism, said Laurel Harper, a Starbucks spokeswoman.
The company also announced a 2-for-1 stock split — its first since 2005 and its sixth since it went public in 1992 — and shared some details on two new delivery services in Seattle and New York.
The company has said in statements that the “Race Together” initiative stems from a meeting that Mr. Schultz called in December at the company’s headquarters in Seattle to discuss racial tension. Police shootings involving the deaths of African-Americans and the ensuing racial tensions in Ferguson, Mo., Staten Island and Oakland, Calif., had turned race relations into a national conversation, and he said he wanted the gathering to provide an outlet for discussion.
Similar forums were later held for employees in Oakland, Los Angeles, St. Louis, Chicago and New York. After playing video clips from some of these meetings where employees voiced their own concerns, Mr. Schultz defended the campaign in closing out the shareholders meeting on Wednesday, contending that the company should take a leadership role on such social issues.
The company began introducing the effort in its brick-and-mortar stores on Monday, encouraging its baristas to write “Race Together” on customers’ coffee cups and pushing them to hand out stickers with that slogan to customers. USA Today has produced a special section on the initiative that will be available in Starbucks stores starting on Friday. Starbucks said it would support employees who engaged with customers on the issue, though it is not directly asking employees to do so.
“This is a provocation,” Dean Crutchfield, a senior vice president at Sterling Brands, a brand consulting firm, said of the campaign. “If it’s successful, it will be an everlasting impression of Starbucks. It bolsters the fact that they’re a purpose-driven brand.”
Starbucks is far from the only corporation to address social issues in widespread campaigns. Coca-Cola, for instance, has tried to promote peace and harmony dating from the 1970s with commercials featuring the song “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony).”
But the “Race Together” effort illustrates how Mr. Schultz is increasingly injecting the company and himself into national issues, even though he dismissed criticism that he was pursuing a political agenda. In October 2013, during the government shutdown, for instance, he introduced a petition asking Congress to pass a budget deal by the end of the year. He has also tried to keep guns out of its coffee shops and has strongly supported veterans and same-sex marriage.
“If you look at the history of Starbucks and you think about what their brand has been about, they’ve taken a position and a point of view on important social issues,” said Jim Stengel, a business consultant and former chief marketing officer at Procter & Gamble. The difference here, he said, is that the effort could clash with consumers’ wishes — to order, wait silently and leave the shop within minutes.
“I just wonder about this particular tactic of trying to get a discussion going between barista and consumer when at least half the consumers are trying to get out of there quickly,” he said.
Such unprompted discussions on race have caused particular trepidation.
“There’s very little being said about how baristas have been trained and are preparing for these conversations,” said Rinku Sen, the executive director of Race Forward, a national nonprofit organization that campaigns for racial justice. “I give them a lot of credit for engaging. I think there are some missing pieces for the plan.”
Ms. Harper, the Starbucks spokeswoman, said Mr. Schultz delivered a video through a retail portal to all the company’s employees on the initiative, but no formal training on the matter.
By other measures, Starbucks appears to be doing well. For the quarter ended Dec. 28, the company reported operating income of $915.5 million, up from $813.5 million in the period a year earlier. Revenue increased 13 percent, to $4.8 billion.
Still, the company is searching for new revenue streams, facing stiffer competition from rivals as it moves into higher-end coffees. With the race campaign, the brand may have been looking for a way to break away from its competitors, said Jeetendr Sehdev, who teaches at the University of Southern California.
“This is not about starting a conversation. This is about coffee wars,” he said. “The sole objective here is to try to increase the brand’s cultural relevance.”
If the initiative’s goal was to drum up attention, it has already proved successful. The hashtag RaceTogether topped Twitter’s trending list on Wednesday.
The question is whether the campaign will thrive on social media. At a Starbucks in Lower Manhattan, many customers had Race Together stickers on their cups, but only a few who were interviewed seemed to understand their meaning. “They just put it and they don’t explain what it is,” said Igor Santos, 44. “I thought it was just advertising.”
Jeetendr was interviewed on the Starbuck's Race Together campaign in The New York Times. View the original article here.