In hot water
Starbucks faces image crisis over arrests of two black men
NEW YORK — Three years ago, Starbucks was widely ridiculed for trying to start a national conversation on equality by asking its employees to write the words “Race Together” on coffee cups. The initiative, though it backfired, was in line with the company’s longstanding effort to project a progressive and inclusive image.
The company is now through the looking glass, trying to tamp down a racially charged uproar over the arrest of two black men at one of its stores in the city of Philadelphia in the United States. How could Starbucks, which once urged its employees to start conversations about race with customers, now be under fire for its treatment of black people?
The episode highlights the risks large corporations run when they tie their brands so closely to social messaging. In 2015, then-CEO Howard Schultz shrugged off the “Race Together” fiasco as well-intentioned mistake and pressed on with his public efforts to engage in the debate over equality in America. His successor, Kevin Johnson, is now scrambling to keep the Philadelphia incident from shattering the message Schultz was going for: Starbucks is a corporation that stands for something beyond profit.
Last month, the company claimed it had achieved 100 percent pay equity across gender and race for all its US employees and committed to doing the same for its overseas operations, an initiative publicly backed by equality activist Billie Jean King. The company also touts the diversity of its workforce, saying minorities compromise more than 40 percent of its employees in the US.
In 2016, Starbucks promised to invest in 15 “underserved” communities across the country, trying to counter an image of a company catering to a mostly white clientele. One of those stores opened in Ferguson, Missouri, the scene of the 2014 protests that erupted following the police shooting of Mich-
I’m actually surprised he (Kevin Johnson) is handling it the way a CEO should be handling it.”
M.J. McCallum, vice-president and creative director of Muse Communications
ael Brown, one of several such killings that moved Schultz to launch the Race Together campaign.
Those efforts are in stark contrast to the video that went viral over the weekend showing the two black men being arrested by police who were called by an employee. Officials have said police officers were told the men had asked to use the store’s restroom but were denied because they hadn’t bought anything and they refused to leave.
On Monday, about two dozen protesters took over the Philadelphia shop while the hashtag #BoycottStarbucks trended on Twitter.
Johnson, who called has called the arrests “reprehensible”, arrived in Philadelphia at the weekend to personally confront the crisis. He said said he hopes to meet with the two men in the next couple of days and apologize to them face-toface. And he promised to revamp store management training to include “unconscious-bias” training.
“I’m actually surprised he is handling it the way a CEO should be handling it. He went at it head first and he took the blame for it,” said M.J. McCallum, vice-president and creative director of Muse Communications, an advertising and communications agency with an AfricanAmerican focus. “I definitely applaud that. Most people won’t jump on the bomb.”
Protesters demonstrate inside Starbucks on Sunday in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.