Too little, too latte? Starbucks’ racial-profiling crisis keeps escalating

by | Apr 17, 2018 | Public Relations

After a Philadelphia Starbucks had two African-American men arrested last week for allegedly trespassing, the java giant’s CEO Kevin Johnson issued an apology that has been well-received critically, and the men have even agreed to meet with him to possibly accept his apology in person—but is Starbucks doing enough to make the situation right, both for the victims and for its overall reputation?

The fact is, the incident couldn’t have been more inappropriate in today’s culture—and couldn’t have happened at a worse time, in the age of #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo and other equality movements. Regardless of the details of the event, Starbucks will need to engage in some clever and, most important, authentic crisis communications to recover.

The two men were sitting in the store awaiting a friend’s arrival before placing their orders, which prompted the concerned store manager to bring police onto the scene in what ultimately turned out to be a grossly mishandled misunderstanding. In his statement, which came just hours after the incident, Johnson called the arrests “reprehensible,” promising to take action to prevent such a scenario from reoccurring. But nevertheless— and understandably so—protests began to start up amid calls for boycotting the coffee chain nationwide.

Starbucks “stands firmly against discrimination or racial profiling,“ Johnson said in his statement. He plans to meet with the men this week to address the controversy. “I’d like to have a dialogue with them so that I can ensure that we have opportunity to really understand the situation and show some compassion and empathy for the experience they went through,“ he said, reports a CNNMoney article. “Finally, as we are working to solve this, I’d like to invite them to join me in finding a constructive way to solve this issue.“

Although the store manager who placed the call to police is reportedly no longer working in the store, and despite Johnson’s repeated apologies since the crisis broke last week, the CEO has not said what disciplinary actions will be taken. “My responsibility is to look not only at that individual but to look more broadly at the circumstances that set that up, to ensure that this never happens again,“ he said on a morning talk show, the CNNMoney article reports.

A video posted on Twitter shows the two men engaging with police as a third man, who they were meeting, arrives as they are being handcuffed. The video has racked up nearly 10,000,000 views, also spring in active #BoycottStarbucks Twitter hashtag.

The video has drawn comments suggesting the incident was reminiscent of the Jim Crow law counter sit-ins during the Civil Rights movements of the 1960s, a USA today article reports. Other commenters questioned the company’s “practices and training.”

Johnson’s string of apologies, while timely and appearing heartfelt, did not seem to quell the outrage over the weekend, as protesters gathered outside the Starbucks location Sunday morning in what Asa Khalif of Black Lives Matter called the “People’s Protest.” Some protesters held signs saying “Too little to latte“ and “Shame on you Starbucks,“ reports WPVI, Philadelphia’s ABC affiliate. Other protesters demonstrated inside the store, chanting “Power to the people.“

Despite the ongoing crisis—for which the ultimate reputation damage is yet to be seen—Johnson continues his apologetic tone, adding that he wrote the message Saturday night for three reasons: “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,” according to the WPVI report.

Khalif, for one, says he does not except this CEO‘s initial apology or follow-up statement. “I think the Starbucks’ response was lukewarm. I think the second responses just trying to save face. If you were truly about justice for those two black men who were racially profiled, he would fire the manager,“ he said.

After seeing the customer-generated video, Johnson reiterated a thorough investigation of the incident and the company’s practices. “The video shot by customers is very hard to watch and the actions in it are not representative of our Starbucks Mission and Values,“ he said. “Regretfully, our practices in training lead to a bad outcome—the basis for the call to the Philadelphia police department was wrong. Our store manager never intended for these men to be arrested and this should never have escalated as it did.”

What can Starbucks do to get control of the escalating crisis—or is it indeed “Too little, too latte?”

Richard Carufel
Richard Carufel is editor of Bulldog Reporter and the Daily ’Dog, one of the web’s leading sources of PR and marketing communications news and opinions. He has been reporting on the PR and communications industry for over 17 years, and has interviewed hundreds of journalists and PR industry leaders. Reach him at richard.carufel@bulldogreporter.com; @BulldogReporter