Normally, I would say that before a corporation launches a campaign to create a conversation around a controversial topic, it should get all of its ducks in a row. It should be sure to identify all the ways that conversation can go wrong. And it should be sure to inoculate itself against pushback by ensuring that its own policies and accomplishments related to the topic are well publicized. If these analyses don't raise any insurmountable red flags, then the company should press ahead. With these considerations in mind, let's look at what happened this past week with Starbucks' #RaceTogether campaign.
Starbucks launched its #RaceTogether campaign to get America talking about race relations. We have had a tough time over the past year or so, not that it has ever been easy, with racial tensions. Michael Brown and Eric Garner both died at the hands of police officers and in each case the public reaction was far more critical than the reaction of the judicial system. But while legal action was not pursued against the police officer who shot Brown in Ferguson, MO, or the officer who strangled Garner to death, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a scathing report showing a pattern of racial discrimination in the application of law enforcement and judicial findings in St. Louis County, MO. The upshot is clear: systemic racism remains a serious problem in America.
But not all Americans see racism first-hand. And those that don't see it first-hand often seem not to appreciate just how severe racism remains. So getting more people to talk about the issue, while not a solution to the systemic problems, is an important component of any effort to heal this divide.
Enter Starbucks and its now partially cancelled #RaceTogether campaign. At the heart of the campaign were baristas at 12,000 Starbucks around the country who were encouraged to write #RaceTogether on the coffee cups they served to customers. The goal was to prompt a question from the customer and a conversation about race with the barista. And that was where the trouble started.
Sure, Starbucks has a great reputation for socially responsible corporate policies. For example, Starbucks is a champion of gay rights, with more than half a million people thanking them for its work on this issue. So Starbucks did not enter this campaign without making it known that they were a socially responsible company (unlike the failure of the NYPD to promote its improvements with respect to police brutality before it launched its #MyNYPD hashtag campaign).
But did Starbucks really think through the campaign? Asking its baristas to prompt conversations about race with customers is highly problematic. Now I will not kowtow to some critics who erroneously claim baristas are not sufficiently educated to conduct these conversations. There are plenty of well-educated baristas and plenty more with lots of smarts. But how many of them have been trained to facilitate conversations about a topic as controversial as racism? And who thought it was a good idea to start these conversations with customers BEFORE they had their morning coffee? Did they consider that many of its baristas might be frustrated earning only minimum wage while being asked to engage in difficult conversations with customers on top of their normal job duties? Given the pushback, it is clear that Starbucks did not think this campaign all the way through.
Corporate social action campaigns are always challenging. For many companies, the thought of taking a political stand on controversial issues is considered bad business, as it tends to alienate a chunk of its customers on the other side. But for some companies, whose customer profile leans one way that is less of a concern. And in this politically charged world we live in, where stores like Hobby Lobby are pushing political agendas on gay marriage and reproductive rights, the market has become ever-more primed for cause-based retailers.
I have always thought, for example, that the market would support paying a little extra for green products. There are enough people who get that paying a little extra for a less polluting product is worth it. Similarly, the market demand for companies that treat their employees fairly, respectfully and provide good benefits, including a living wage, is on the rise.
Still, even with a rising market for socially responsible businesses, issues like race relations are still challenging for businesses to address. Race is one of those issues were many hide their views from the public and others carry implicit biases they might not even recognize. So while race relations is one of the most important issues facing us, it is also one of the most difficult to talk about.
Just ask Starbucks' Senior Vice President of Communications Corey duBrowa, who deleted his Twitter account after he was inundated with hate tweets over the #RaceTogether campaign. It was as if he did not see this storm coming. I think he should have anticipated it, just as JP Morgan's Jamie Dimon should have anticipated the reaction to his #AskJPM tweetchat. And while duBrowa hit the escape button too fast on this one, it is heartening to see he came back to Twitter within a day.
Despite the blowback on the #RaceTogether campaign, duBrowa's return to Twitter is a strong indication that he gets that this really is a tough issue and it deserves committed champions who will persevere through the criticisms to carry on the conversation. For while the conversation is currently more about Starbucks than race, the Starbucks focus will fade and the conversation about race will continue to grow.
I am hopeful that the conversation about race on social media, in particular, will grow more from people who are committed to improving race relations and less from people who are outraged about the next horrific example of racism in America. Those horrors, like the death of Eric Garner, will likely continue. But hopefully they will become less frequent as the conversations to solve the problem become more mainstream.
As we say at my office, "Carpe colloquium... Seize the conversation." Because though talking about race won't solve the problem by itself, the solution won't happen if we remain silent.
Social Advocacy and Politics is an exclusive Social Media Today column by Alan Rosenblatt, Ph.D. published every Tuesday.