The campaign was met with a lot of criticism, and I was particularly struck by the broad range of reasons why it was unpopular. There were those who thought Starbucks was trying to capitalize on the fact that race has been in the news recently with incidents in Staten Island, NY and Ferguson, MO, and other places across the country. Others thought that the idea of speaking about race while in line for a coffee in the morning trying to get to work was just a really bad idea. As PBS NewsHour anchor Gwen Ifill put it, “Honest to God, if you start to engage me in a race conversation before I’ve had my morning coffee, it will not end well.”
I think Starbucks’s intentions were good but the result was that it didn’t go over well with the public at large, and the campaign stopped at the end of March.
What went wrong here, and what lessons can we take from this?
First, I didn’t really understand what Starbuck’s goal for this campaign where seemed unclear. Was this to grow their brand? Was it to sell more coffee? From media reports, it seemed like Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz thought that this would be a good idea, and that the campaign was implemented in a rushed fashion.
For your own company, look to understand what the goal is for your PR campaign. Is it to get new customers? Is it to grow your brand? Is it to connect with investors? The more that you can have an objective to your PR campaign, the more focused it will be, and the more likely it will hit its target.
The other thing about the Starbucks campaign is that it was really, really ambitious. The idea that baristas would talk to people while they’re getting their coffee about race was unrealistic. If I was serving coffee to someone, I’m not sure I’d be so comfortable about talking about race relations or problems with race in America, and if I was a customer, I don’t think I would want to do the same.
Be honest with yourself about what you have and what you can do. How much time and money do you have to implement a campaign? Think about the tools that are at your disposal and how you want to implement them. Are you going to use a news release? Are you going to do something only on social media? Are you looking to contact media within a particular industry, or are you looking for something that’s more mainstream? Asking yourself who you are ultimately looking to connect with will make a very large difference as to how effective your public relations campaign will be.
The #RaceTogether PR campaign was a painful lesson for Starbucks that they won’t soon forget. Fortunately, their mistakes provide valuable lessons for keeping your PR goals and objectives focused and your expectations realistic.