Starbucks Store Closures Part of Larger Crisis Comms Campaign

After a long holiday weekend, you may have found yourself needing a little extra afternoon caffeine boost to get through the day. If you went to any of the 8,000 company-owned Starbucks stores across the country this afternoon in search of a latte, cappuccino or my favorite – plain black coffee – you were out of luck.

Starbucks’ decision to close its U.S. stores for a few hours today for employee racial-bias education training comes about a month after two African-American men in Philadelphia were arrested when a Starbucks employee at that location called the police because those men had not made a purchase and would not leave.

Today’s store closings are the latest and most visible public relations effort by Starbucks to demonstrate the company’s commitment to avoiding a recurrence of the event in Philadelphia, which led to a deluge of negative news coverage and social media conversation. It’s a bold move, but a necessary one.

It’s understandable that some may be skeptical that a partial day of training, even if held across the entire country, is enough to completely change the culture of a business. They are likely right, but that doesn’t mean that Starbucks’ decision to close the stores was a bad one.

We should view today’s nationwide training not as a single tactic, but instead as one part of a larger public relations campaign designed to repair Starbucks’ unique brand identity as the leading place to meet up for coffee, but also just for conversation or to conduct business.

Starbucks’ leadership team understands that in a culture that is becoming increasingly connected online but not always as connected in person, it serves a vital societal role as a “third place” – a gathering place that people often frequent outside of home or work.

In the time since the incident in Philadelphia, the company updated its official policy on the “third place,” which is essentially a social contract among customers, as well as between these customers and store employees.

Racial bias certainly was a major part of the issue that played out in Philadelphia, but if the wording from the updated “third place” policy had been in place, it’s possible that the employee may not have felt compelled to address non-paying customers in the first place.

Starbucks made another announcement last week that fully encoded what many people have thought for years – that its stores are essentially the public restrooms of America, especially as actual public restrooms have disappeared. The company received widespread praise for the announcement of the policy, which is designed to prevent fewer opportunities for employee/customer confrontations moving forward.

Today’s store closings are a very bold move. The closings are essentially the customer service equivalent of a product recall, which has been a go-to crisis communications strategy since the Tylenol recall in 1982 repaired the Johnson & Johnson brand. Starbucks is banking on a PR win that comes from temporarily “recalling” its employees and only sending them back after the training session.

It’s important to view today as one major tactic in a larger crisis communications campaign when evaluating its success. Public relations campaigns aren’t just for proactive, marketing-driven efforts.

They are also for moments like this, when long-term changes are needed, and only a sustained campaign of operational improvements, communicated consistently to the public, can truly affect the way the public evaluates a company’s performance.

We’ll be keeping an eye on how this crisis communications campaign unfolds over the coming weeks and months.

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