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Caribou Coffee Brews Social Media Crisis

Caribou Coffee Social Media PR Crisis
Caribou Coffee
’s announcement last week, that the company was shuttering stores and laying off employees, proves that relying exclusively on a press release to deliver unpleasant news is a bad strategy in the digital age.

I’m not saying press releases aren’t important. But in the age of Facebook, Twitter and other social media, I am saying they’re not enough.

In case you missed it, German-owned Caribou announced on Apr. 8 that it would be closing 80 of its stores and rebranding an additional 88 others as Peet’s Coffee & Tea.

That same day — seemingly as though everything was business as usual — Caribou Coffee posted a status update about its new Bistro Bagel breakfast sandwich to its Facebook Page provoking a rash of bitter feedback. Customers and employees posted comments “roasting” the brand for its insensitivity, for deleting comments critical of its plan to close stores and for giving its employees only one week’s notice to find new jobs.

Caribou’s Facebook administrator tried to manage the backlash by removing the snarky comments, but the company’s critics apparently had greater stamina. A week later, the page is littered with defamatory remarks and sad goodbyes from customers whose preferred brand of morning Joe was being taken away from them.

We’ll never know for sure why Caribou showed such poor judgment in how it managed the fallout from its store-closing announcement. Perhaps the company missed the bus to the digital future and still thinks it can control the message.

More likely, it was a failure of Caribou’s management.

“Good communications come from solid leadership and training,” says Greg Reeder, an executive at DC Media Group, who will deliver learnings such as these as part of a panel on crisis communications at the PRSA Digital Impact Conference, June 7-8, 2013, in New York.

Reeder agrees that there are three important lessons that public relations professionals can take away from Caribou Coffee’s mishandling of its store-closing announcement.

1. Do What You Say, Say What You Do.
Any gap between what a company says and what it does is riskier than ever. On its Web site, Caribou claims to have a corporate culture that’s committed to listening, developing and recognizing their team members, but by terminating hundreds of employees with one week’s notice, the company’s actions proved otherwise.

Caribou Coffee Corporate Culture


2. Communications Should be Multi Channel
It may be naive to think that there’s any “nice” way to communicate job losses. However, making public disclosures of this nature exclusively through top-down, asymmetric, “command-and-control” type communications is a poor choice. A smarter choice would have been to make the announcement through employees who could provide context and show empathy. Remember, too, that people trust employees more than executive leaders. In a multichannel universe, communications should be distributed simultaneously through as many avenues as possible.

3. Social Media is a Team Sport
While communicating to and through employees provides benefits in terms of engagement, reach and trust, it still requires social media literacy and social media compliance. Social media policies are necessary, but not sufficient to promote social media literacy. Very few employees take the time to read a social media policy. And if they do, fewer actually understand what they mean. The objective of a good social media policy is not censorship or message control; rather, it is to train and teach employees key concepts, “how-to” mechanics and best practices, such as disclosure, transparency, respect, diplomacy and penalties.



Social media policy without applied social media training is like a flashlight without batteries. I’m not talking about social media training for public relations and corporate communications professionals. I’m talking about social media training for the entire enterprise.

“Nowadays, maximum disclosure with minimum delay means communicating more broadly through your employee base online,” continues Reeder, who was previously a colonel with the Marine Corps.  “In the age of Facebook and Twitter, our aim was to ensure every Marine was trained in social media communications.”

Social media training the whole company may sound cost prohibitive. But e-learning is changing all that.  My company, ComplySocially, has developed e-learning courseware to social media train employees on-demand via laptop or mobile.  We even have an online course on how to draft social media policies.

Looking back in hindsight, what should Caribou have done differently? First, it could have given its employees more advance notice. Second, it could have involved its employees in the announcement. And finally, it could have made severance payments contingent on social media policy compliance, assuming it has a social media policy and has conducted social media training.

Granted, there’s always going to be some kind of negative backlash when jobs are lost. But if you learn from Caribou’s mistakes, the backlash is far less likely to spiral out of control.

Eric Schwartzman is CEO of ComplySocially, a company that develops e-learning courseware to deliver social media training to employees on-demand via their laptops and mobile, coauthor of the best-seller Social Marketing to the Business Customer and founding chair of PRSA Digital Impact Conference.

Join The Conversation

  • Jul 25 Posted 3 years ago Shazia

    I don't think companies nowadays need social media training , all they need is Ethicial training and general curtosy. Most of the big cooprates have a huge list of comapny's core values but their culture doesn't necessarly reflects that.  

    Companies should connect with their emplyees at at a deeper level, they should hold weekly emotional check-ins, and alternating bi-weekly team workouts. Also, they should do more than just listen and learn how to listen and then follow upOnly then can employees see that they are being taken seriously and their opinions count.

    It's pretty basic. Happy employees lead to happy customers, which leads to higher sales and profit.

  • Apr 29 Posted 4 years ago KevinHorne

    Specious arguments like these are the reason in a couple years more and more companies will have gone the route Charter Cable and a couple others have and get off social media. Caribou was promoting a sandwich for God's sake - like all you gurus told them to do 3 years ago - and now the rules have changed to "NO PROMOS until you have washed and aired ALL your dirty corporate underwear."

  • Tom Westerén's picture
    Apr 26 Posted 4 years ago Tom Westerén

    Good discussion, I agree with most points above. With my experience of dealing with change communications both from inside organizations and as a consultant, I firmly believe that actions are the strongest message. In this case, the problem is the disconnect betwen values and actions when executing a restructuring. You simply have to live as you preach, otherwise you'll get hammered in social media. 

    I'm often challenging communications executives in organisations not to take their company's planned actions as given, but to put up a fight to change the plans if needed. Obviously, this is not always possible, but it's a position worth taking if you want to avoid crises like the one above. 

    In the world of social media, it's increasinlgy difficult to window dress bad decisions or make negative comments disappear.


  • Apr 22 Posted 4 years ago rapier993

    I agree that there is a genuine disconnect in Caribou's Marketing and PR departments with the rest of the business.  At best their Facebook page activity shows that disconnect, at worst it identifies a managment style and attitude that doesn't have regard or respect for the front line workers serving the customers.

    What I don't understand from this article is the point about making sure all employees have social media training.  At first I assumed the author meant training for public relations and corporate communications professionals but the author then went on to clarify that he means for the entire enterprise.  What, exactly, would that have accomplished in this case?  The example post is from an employee losing his or her job in a week.  What would training have done to prevent the post?  Generally, social media policies and training emphasize what employees can and cannot post on social media regarding their place of employment however the usual mechanism for enforcing said policies is threat of termination.  For some reason I really don't see that being that big a stick under these circumstances. 

    If there were any failings with regards to Caribou's social media policies I would suggest it was at the corporate communication professional level.  At the very least they should understand that news that has a negative impact on their employees should be delivered in advance of any public announcments to ensure that the employees themselves don't learn of the changes via social media. (Not saying this happened extensively but given the size of the organization, I would be highly surprised if it didn't happen for some employees.)

  • tuusensational's picture
    Apr 21 Posted 4 years ago tuusensational

    Points well taken. This shows a disconnect between marketing a product and communication with clients. Did anyone connect the company's actions (closing stores and layoffs) with "business as usual" attitude. It's two separate messages going out from same source. Specialty coffee houses usually have a more socially savvy clientele. The perceived (and actual) insensitivity of the corporation in store closings and layofffs (in a still struggling economy) overwhelmed the news aboout a new product. Does anyone in marketing talk to one another? Did management oversee the end product message ? My observation is a disorganized company, not someone I would patronize. There are other coffee vendors after all.It looks like the social media work was farmed out and no one bothered to see that the message ws coordinated to what was going on. Genuine disconnect.

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