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Lessons learned from the Starbucks Philadelphia crisis

“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail,” Benjamin Franklin once said. We all know that mistakes happen and sometimes things go wrong, but the key is to be prepared. In a recent webinar, faculty from Florida International University’s (FIU) Global Strategic Communications (GSC) master’s degree program examined the Starbucks incident that occurred in Philadelphia on April 12, 2018, and the lessons learned from the company’s crisis response.

Aileen Izquierdo, instructor and graduate director of the GSC program, highlighted the importance of timeliness when it comes to crisis responses, particularly, in today’s age of social media and the 24-hour news cycle.

“Social media monitoring is important, not only to determine what is being said about an organization at any given time, but also to determine if there are potential issues with which an organization needs to contend,” she said. Izquierdo also explained that with the immediacy of social media, news and misinformation can gain traction in seconds and for some companies, waiting longer than 24 hours can be considered too long to make a statement.

That said, Izquierdo acknowledged that Starbucks did go out of its way to make genuine apologies when a now-famous viral video showed two black men waiting for a friend being arrested for trespassing when they didn’t buy anything. She feels the coffee giant made a united internal effort to demonstrate that they understood what happened and that action needed to be taken.

“They shut down 8,000 stores for a day and they found experts outside the organization and brought them on board to help take them in the right direction,” said Izquierdo of Starbucks’ quick thinking and pivot.

Beyond the response, Dr. Raquel Perez examined the conflict itself and the importance of identifying and understanding what exactly the conflict is in a crisis situation.  “There’s a large component of conflict in a situation like this. There will be times that an external crisis will cause the internal strife within an organization,” said Dr. Perez, who described the challenges companies face with consistency. She also stressed the importance of organizations addressing internal communications and policies in an effort to avoid inconsistencies and possible incidents, like that of Starbucks, in the future.

While it’s not a complete solution, the shut down and training day was a start to change the company’s culture. Dr. Perez warned that a company’s cultural shift doesn’t happen overnight; however, actions like Starbucks’ stimulate the healthy dialogue needed to continue the conversation and make long-lasting change.

In wrapping up the lessons learned, Instructor Heather Radi-Bermudez concluded that the top tenets of handling a crisis -- truth, transparency and timeliness – still apply in crisis communications. If plans are in place before a crisis hits, companies and global brands have a stronger chance of a positive outcome and regaining the public trust, she explained.