3 PR Lessons from Starbucks’ Public Bathroom Crisis

05.03.2018 | Hattie Schafhausen

After two African American men were arrested in a Philadelphia Starbucks for asking to use the restroom without purchasing something, the nation wondered how the giant conglomerate would handle such a polarizing crisis. Not long after the video of the confrontation with police and hashtags to boycott the coffeeshop went viral, Starbucks rolled out an impressive crisis management plan. Here are three lessons that businesses can learn from Starbucks’ quick and effective response.

1. Validate the public’s concerns quickly

When a crisis such as this (or any crisis for that matter) occurs, it is most important to validate the public’s concerns before acting further. When the video went viral, the public needed to know first and foremost that Starbucks recognized that there was a problem in its racial profiling of the two African American men. In order to validate concerns that Starbucks employees could be racist, CEO Kevin Johnson issued a memo asserting that, “Starbucks stands firmly against discrimination or racial profiling. … The video shot by customers is very hard to watch and the actions in it are not representative of our Starbucks Mission and Values.” Even though the company was still working to establish the facts of the incident, accepting responsibility and showing empathy served Starbucks well as it continued its efforts to address the crisis.

2. Take concrete action

In a racially charged crisis such as this, an apology posted from the company Twitter handle is simply not enough. First, Kevin Johnson, Howard Schultz and other executive members immediately flew to Philadelphia to meet the two men and personally apologize and speak to employees at the Philadelphia store. Additionally, Starbucks proved that actions speak louder than words when it announced that 8,000 stores nationwide would close on May 29 for racial bias training, saying, “Closing our stores for racial bias training is just one step in a journey that requires dedication from every level of our company and partnerships in our local communities.” The training for over 175,000 employees is projected to cost Starbucks over $7 million in lost revenue, not to mention the actual cost and implementation of the training program into Starbucks’ onboarding process. These concrete actions enabled Starbucks to insert its own dialogue rather than letting the media take control of the narrative.

3. Coverage-tracking is key

Although apologies and plans for further action have been made, the internet can reinvigorate the issue in a split second. Starbucks demonstrated how important it is to diligently monitor the situation when it got its own taste of fake news. When fake coupons began to circulate online promising a free beverage to any person of color, Starbucks was effective in preventing the internet trolls from deepening the hurt that the crisis caused and even using the coupons to its advantage. After a spokesperson for Starbucks denied any connection to the fake coupons, Starbucks noticed a positive response on social media to the coupons and decided to make them a reality:“We here at Starbucks are very sorry to hear about people being tricked into believing a hoax … we’ve decided to make it a reality.” What could have been an entirely new and dangerous facet to the public-bathroom crisis became a way for Starbucks to facilitate dialogue and rectify its wrongdoings.


As a result of its crisis response, could Starbucks come out on top? Will the May 29 racial bias training be considered effective? Time will tell – stay tuned!


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Filed under: COMMUNIQUÉ PR, Crisis Communications, Strategy

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