Starbucks recently launched a campaign called Race Together in the US to get communities to start an open dialogue about race with the brand. The Seattle-based coffee company instructed its baristas to write “Race Together” on the side of customers’ cups in an effort to engage them to discuss race.
However, the effort was not entirely well received by the public. Comments on social media sites revealed anger and scepticism towards the campaign, with online users accusing the coffee brand of being opportunistic and capitalising on such a controversial issue.
— Kent Wilson (@Kent_Wilson) March 19, 2015
#RaceTogether makes a mockery of race and racism as well as the serious anti-racist work that is going on across this country.
— W. E. Bae Du Bois (@alwaystheself) March 18, 2015
— Jonny B (@jonnysayhey) March 18, 2015
Following the backlash, Starbucks’ senior vice-president of global communications, Corey duBrowa, decided to delete his Twitter account. He later wrote an opinion piece on Medium explaining he blocked a handful of Twitter users because of “the hostile nature” of their comments and deleted his account.
He said on the post: “Twitter has proven to be a valuable tool for me to interact with my professional community, with media, on behalf of Starbucks, as well as on behalf of me. But I felt personally attacked in a cascade of negativity. I got overwhelmed by the volume and tenor of the discussion and I reacted. Most of all, I was concerned about becoming a distraction from the respectful conversation around Race Together that we have been trying to create.”
However, as a PR person, did it serve him and the Starbucks brand any good by deleting his account?
“Blocking users and deleting your account is quite unbecoming of someone representing a brand that just launched a bold initiative. People would be quick to assume that duBrowa himself didn’t believe in the cause,” said Preetham Venkky, head of digital strategy and business at KRDS Singapore.
He added that if he was trolled, he could have simply not engaged. For valid tweets, it was more important for him to stay, engage and participate in the conversation.
“On social media, it’s better to have your brutal honest viewpoint as opposed to remaining silent, or even worse, running away. It needs to be a conversation, not elocution,” Venkky said.
So was Starbucks right to take on the race issue?
Since the online backlash, Starbucks released a statement saying the company knew the campaign and issue would not be an easy one to tackle, but the company felt the issue “is worth the discomfort”.
“It’s a gross generalisation, but I would never recommend consumer brands to tackle grassroots issues. People feel offended, since they usually smell the motive of profit behind such initiatives,” Venkky said.
However, he added that in the case of Starbucks, the issue was different since the brand had always been an integral part of the community wherever they were located.
“It’s never easy to discuss such complex issues, such as race, either at work or at home, so it’s important for communities to come together at a neutral place. Starbucks’ locations can serve to be that neutral place.”
He added that in the case of Starbucks, when users stopped trolling the campaign, consumers might see an honest initiative gain momentum.
Lars Voedisch, founder of PRecious Communications, also seconded Venkky’s comments saying that while duBrowa’s reaction “was unfortunate”, the company did successfully steer a conversation on race.
“Starbucks knew that tackling race is a sensitive issue and most companies would have moved away from this – or any other emotionally loaded topic. So I applaud Starbucks and their CEO to go out there and have this conversation, fully being aware there will be sorts of backlash,” Voedisch said.
He added that it showed the brand genuinely wanted to get involved in society and community issues.
“There are thousands of brands that claim they are getting involved in the communities they are in – but which company actually goes beyond some safe CSR programmes or supporting generally accepted charities? We need more companies out there that take a stand and go where it might hurt.”