Starbucks ‘Race Together’ promotion sparks controversy

Critics have blasted the coffee chain for using race relations as a marketing gimmick.

Starbucks is getting slammed for its #RaceTogether campaign.

Baristas at 12,000 Starbucks locations were given the task of starting conversations with customers about race relations this week. They’re being asked to write #RaceTogether on a customer’s coffee cup to spark a discussion.

CEO Howard Schultz says the campaign was inspired by a company forum in December. Fortune reports 40 percent of Starbucks’ nearly 200,000 employees are part of a racial minority group.

Reception to the campaign has been overwhelmingly negative, with some critics writing articles disdaining the strategy and many more taking to social media:

Shortly after the backlash began, Corey DuBrowa, Starbucks’ senior VP of communications, deleted his Twitter account.

“I was personally attacked through my Twitter account around midnight last night and the tweets represented a distraction from the respectful conversation we are trying to start around Race Together,” DuBrowa told Business Insider.

The action only added fuel to the fire:

It didn’t help matters that DuBrowa apparently blocked critics who had tweeted to him prior to his deleting the account:

Not all conversation surrounding #RaceTogether is negative. Many commended Starbucks for a blog post written by the company’s senior manager of partner communications and engagement, Kelly Sheppard.

In the post, Sheppard discusses the Starbucks Partner Open Forums that inspired the campaign:

In the past three months nearly 2,000 partners have been involved in Partner Open Forums in six cities—sharing their personal thoughts and feelings about race. And like me, I hope they all now see the value in having an open and honest conversation about race—even in the workplace. Perhaps a simple outcome, but one that will be truly valuable as we—as a country—continue down the path of improving race relations.

“The current state of racism in our country is almost like a humidity at times,” said a Starbucks partner, according to Sheppard. “You can’t see it, but you feel it.”

Audiences may have accepted Sheppard’s post over other corporate messages—especially DuBrowa’s—because she is a black leader at the company. Many critics called out Starbucks for raising this issue when most baristas starting the conversation are white.

However, it seems the bigger reason Sheppard’s post was commended while the campaign as a whole received backlash is the consumers’ perception of each strategy’s underlying motive.

“The most ridiculous part of the new campaign is that it treats the very real problem of racial bias and tension as, at best, a peg for a marketing gimmick and, at worst, as something that can be waved away by simply thinking about it,” Philip Bump writes in The Washington Post.

An additional problem, as was pointed out by Entrepreneur‘s Kate Taylor, lies in having baristas shoulder the weight of the campaign. She called the responsibility “unfair.”

“While Starbucks says that partners inspired Race Together, it is difficult to imagine that employees across the board have the training—or patience—necessary to orchestrate these discussions,” Taylor wrote.

“Starbucks is not in the habit of standing by while difficult conversations take place,” DuBrowa told PR Week. “We want to be an up-stander, not a bystander.”

What do you think, PR Daily readers? Could Starbucks have avoided the backlash with a campaign to discuss race, or is the topic simply too volatile for a conversation over lattes?

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