By Srijan Sen
On March 22, a controversial Starbucks initiative to facilitate open conversations about race relations in the United States was suspended by the corporation amidst fierce backlash as a visible aspect of the company’s diversity and racial inequality campaign sparked widespread criticism in the week since it took effect.
In certain stores across the country, baristas wrote “Race Together” on cups in an effort to stimulate conversation, empathy and compassion toward one another, and then to broaden that dialogue to the greater American public, according to Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz.
The company’s campaign was criticized as opportunistic and inappropriate coming in the wake of racially charged events such as national protests over police killings of black males. Public reaction ranged from parodies of customer interaction with baristas to social media attacks aimed at company executives.
Others questioned whether Starbucks employees could spark productive conversations about race while serving drinks, but most just pleaded for a more conventional relationship with businesses they patronize.
The social media attacks grew so hostile that Corey duBrowa, senior vice president for global communications at Starbucks, temporarily deleted his Twitter account on Monday.
“Last night I felt personally attacked in a cascade of negativity,” Mr. duBrowa wrote in a post on Medium.
While this specific campaign has ended, Schultz said the cups were “just the catalyst” for a larger conversation. Starbucks will still hold forum discussions, co-produce special sections in USA Today and put more stores in minority communities as part of the Race Together initiative.
The company said it would support employees who engaged with customers on the issue, though it is not directly asking employees to do so. However, a special section produced by USA Today on the initiative is available in Starbucks stores.
Although an ill-conceived implementation marred the social campaign, Starbucks spokesman Jim Olson said the phase-out was not a reaction to the pushback, maintaining the company planned all along to end the cup messages on Sunday and continue the campaign more broadly.
“Nothing is changing. It’s all part of the cadence of the timeline we originally planned,” said Olson.
As the Twitter outrage grew over the week, the announcement of Race Together became a conversation about Starbucks. The focus of scrutiny shifted toward the executive team where 16 of the company’s 19 executives are white.
Even though public uproar abruptly ended the social campaign, some academics believe Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz’s efforts and other instances of CEO activism should be commended because they are seeking to exert political influence in an unusually transparent and delimited way.
An associate professor at Duke University, Aaron Chatterji, and associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, Michael Toffel believe critics are missing the bigger picture as CEOs like Schultz are “intentionally courting controversy by weighing in on contentious issues without any obvious pretense of raising profits.”
Financially, Starbucks appears to be on solid ground. For the quarter that ended Dec. 28, the company reported operating income of $915.5 million, up from $813.5 million in the period a year earlier. Revenue increased 13 percent, to $4.8 billion.
“As professors, we teach at business schools that encourage our students to transform not just the organizations they lead but also the broader societies in which they operate,” wrote Chatterji and Toffel in the Harvard Business Review. The Race Together initiative was the most recent effect made by Schultz to inject the company and himself into national issues, dismissing criticism that he was pursuing a political agenda.
In October 2013, during the government shutdown, Schultz introduced a petition asking Congress to pass a budget deal by the end of the year. He has also tried to keep guns out of the coffee shops and has strongly supported veterans and same-sex marriage.
“While there has been criticism of the initiative, let me assure you that we didn’t expect universal praise,” said Schultz in a letter to Starbucks partners. “The heart of Race Together has always been about humanity: the promise of the American Dream should be available to every person in this country, not just a select few.”