Is it better to stop a PR crisis at its source—or through a companywide
Starbucks is grappling with that question as it attempts to undo the damage
caused by the recent arrests of two black men in Philadelphia.
The April 12 incident was caught on camera and uploaded to social media.
The video has been viewed nearly 10 million times:
@Starbucks The police were called because these men hadn’t ordered anything. They were waiting for a friend to show up, who did as they were taken out in handcuffs for doing nothing. All the other white ppl are wondering why it’s never happened to us when we do the same thing. pic.twitter.com/0U4Pzs55Ci
— Melissa DePino (@missydepino) April 12, 2018
Police said they received a 911 complaint of trespassing and responding
officers were told the two men had asked to use the lavatory without making
a purchase. Richard Ross, police commissioner, said the men said they were
waiting for a friend and refused to leave.
A Starbucks spokesman said the store had a policy of only allowing
customers to use the lavatories.
The two men were taken to a police station, where they were fingerprinted
and photographed, their attorney Lauren Wimmer told The Washington Post on
Saturday. Her clients, who declined to be identified, were released eight
hours later because the district attorney found no evidence of a crime, she
said, adding the Starbucks manager was white.
The two men were at the coffee shop to meet Andrew Yaffe, who runs a real
estate development firm and wanted to meet to discuss business investment
opportunities, Wimmer said.
Multiple witnesses recorded the incident on cellphones. In one video, Yaffe
arrives to tell police the two men were waiting for him.
“Why would they be asked to leave?” Yaffe says. “Does anybody else think
this is ridiculous?” he asks people nearby. “It’s absolute discrimination.”
As the video and details of the arrest spread, backlash grew online and on
Many social media users tweeted under the hashtag
that on Sunday, people gathered outside the Philadelphia Starbucks location
to protest the store management’s decision to call the police. The mayor
called for an investigation of Starbucks’ policies and procedures.
Mayor Jim Kenney said Saturday he was “heartbroken” to see the city in the
headlines for an incident that appears at this point “to exemplify what
racial discrimination looks like in 2018.”
The protests drew multiple apologies from Starbucks and its chief.
[FREE DOWNLOAD: 13 tips for preparing for a crisis]
On Saturday, Starbucks tweeted the following:
We apologize to the two individuals and our customers for what took place at our Philadelphia store on Thursday. pic.twitter.com/suUsytXHks
— Starbucks Coffee (@Starbucks) April 14, 2018
Social media users were quick to criticize the mea culpa, with
many saying that the wording “these matters,” “incidents” and “these types
of situations” glossed over the racially charged crisis.
Late Saturday night, Starbucks’ chief executive officer, Kevin Johnson,
an apology on the company’s newsroom. It read, in part:
I’m writing this evening to convey three things:
First, to once again express our deepest apologies to the two men who were
arrested with a goal of doing whatever we can to make things right. Second,
to let you know of our plans to investigate the pertinent facts and make
any necessary changes to our practices that would help prevent such an
occurrence from ever happening again. And third, to reassure you that
Starbucks stands firmly against discrimination or racial profiling.
The company’s social media team also tweeted an excerpt from the statement,
along with a link to the full letter:
We regret that our practices and training led to the reprehensible outcome at our Philadelphia store. We’re taking immediate action to learn from this and be better. A statement from ceo Kevin Johnson: https://t.co/kPav8bEeOX
— Starbucks Coffee (@Starbucks) April 15, 2018
Johnson then issued another apology, via a video posted on Starbucks’
Johnson said, in part:
I want to begin by offering a personal apology to the two gentlemen who
were arrested in our store. What happened and the way that incident
escalated, and the outcome, was nothing but reprehensible. And I’m sorry.
I want to apologize to the community in Philadelphia, and to all my
Starbucks partners. This is not who we are, and this is not who we are
going to be. We are going to learn from this, and we are going to be better
In the video, Johnson took responsibility and tried to shift the blame away
from the store manager who called the police:
… These two gentlemen did not deserve what happened, and we are
accountable. I am accountable.
Now, going through this, I am going to do everything I can to ensure it is
fixed and never happens again. Whether that is changes to the policy and
the practice, additional store manager training including training around
unconscious bias, and we will address this.
Now, there has been some calls for us to take action on the store manager.
I believe that blame has been misplaced. In fact, I think the focus of
fixing this, I own it. This is a management issue, and I am accountable to
ensure that we address the policy and the practice and the training that
led to this outcome.
Racial PR crises and reputation management
Though its first apology was criticized—and the company is continuing to
face backlash over not firing the store manager who called the police—some
say Johnson’s statements are crucial elements to Starbucks’ crisis
Addressing the issue forthrightly is important in part because Starbucks
already has a complicated track record on racial issues. Though the company
has often taken very public progressive stances on social issues, then-CEO
Howard Schultz triggered a backlash with a 2015 campaign dubbed “Race
Together,” which aimed to foster conversations about race as national
outrage over police shootings of unarmed African-Americans reached a fever
But that campaign was met with withering scorn by critics who felt it was a
superficial gesture, emblematic of tone-deaf posturing by white liberals.
Starbucks is yet another company plunged into a PR crisis because of race.
Last month, Applebee’s
fired three employees
after they were involved in the racial profiling of two African-American
women who, while during their dinner at the Independence, Mo., restaurant,
were falsely accused of skipping out without paying their bill the day
An IHOP in Auburn, Maine apologized after a server asked a group of black
teens to pay upfront for their meal last month. The restaurant manager said
he did not think the server’s action was racially motivated because the
restaurant had some problems with teens leaving without paying.
In January, a black man alleged that
he had been racially profiled
at an Old Navy store in West Des Moines, Iowa, when he was asked to prove
he had previously purchased an Old Navy jacket he was wearing.
Besides facing criticism previously for inserting itself into a
conversation about race
through its #RaceTogether campaign, the effect that Starbucks locations have had on the neighborhoods in
which they open have also left the company exposed to backlash.
More subtly, Starbucks appears to play a role in gentrifying urban
neighborhoods, and possibly displacing communities of color. A 2015 study
published by Quartz
showed that the arrival of a Starbucks is a very strong predictor, and
possibly a cause, of disproportionate rises in the price of surrounding
homes. Another study focused specifically on Philadelphia found that
gentrification effectively led to the
of the city.
Though Johnson took responsibility for last week’s incident and will be
meeting with officials in Philadelphia, his plan for increased training—in
lieu of firing the manager involved—might not be enough to quell the
What would you suggest Starbucks do next, PR Daily readers?