In hot wa­ter

Star­bucks faces im­age cri­sis over ar­rests of two black men

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FRONT PAGE -

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.

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