Picture from Starbucks Faces  Social Media Maelstrom Over “Race Together” Campaign
Starbucks initiative to get their customers talking about racial issues backfired on social media. Image ©Dollar Photo Club/Iraidka

Starbucks Faces Social Media Maelstrom Over “Race Together” Campaign

Have you ever wondered what makes some social media campaigns, like the ASL Ice Bucket Challenge, so successful while others are met with an online counterblast?

Today people can respond instantly to any initiative trending on the web. And sometimes those comments can be unreasonably harsh.

Take for example the Starbucks’ initiative to engender conversations about race. In theory it might have been a good idea. After all don’t people hang out in coffee shops to talk?

On March 17 Starbucks’ baristas in 12,000 U.S. outlets were told by executives to begin writing “Race Together” on all their coffee cups. The intention was to start conversations about race and diversity with their customers. But the campaign caused a stir almost immediately.

The company’s first mistake may have been the press photos that showed only white hands. It seems obvious that an initiative about races coming together would depict that in very visible ways in the press material. Second the company expected their frontline people, the baristas, to start a conversation with people who may or may not want to talk. What executive on the way to a business meeting wants to do more than get his or her expensive latte and get out the door? Discussing something as encompassing as racial issues isn’t conducive to a fast food lineup.

The online response to the initiative was immediate with people posting their negative reactions about the campaign on Twitter. The onslaught of critical comments resulted in the temporary deactivation of Starbucks Sr. VP of Global Communications Corey duBrowa’s Twitter account. In a post on Medium, duBrowa later confessed to feeling “personally attacked in a cascade of negativity.”

“I got overwhelmed by the volume and tenor of the discussion, and I reacted. Most of all, I was concerned about becoming a distraction from the respectful conversation around Race Together that we have been trying to create.”

Later duBrowa reactivated his account saying, “No matter how ugly the discussion has been since I shut my account down, I’m reaffirming my belief in the power of meaningful, civil, thoughtful, respectful open conversation—on Twitter and everywhere else.”

However, as of Sunday, Starbucks Corp. officially told employees they would no longer be asked to write “Race Together” on customers’ cups. But Chief Executive Howard Shultz has vowed to continue other aspects of the campaign. He is quoted as saying, the move was designed to “foster dialogue and empathy and help bridge the racial and ethnic divides within our society that have existed for so many years.”

While the company’s intentions may have been good, the campaign unfortunately appears to be dividing people on another front. More than that it raises the questions of why we feel so entitled to attack and condemn and if there is a better way to react that encourages corporations to be more consumer conscious.