Last week, Starbucks introduced their now infamous Race Together campaign. Tom Schultz, Chairman and CEO of the beverage goliath, started the initiative and announced it at an internal company meeting. Starbucks then broadcasted it to the public on their website. The campaign encourages baristas to write "Race Together" on customers' cups in order to "start a discussion about race in America." Starbucks emphasized that the decision to engage was voluntary and should not prohibit timely customer service.
Starbucks claimed that the campaign started with "one voice," that of Schultz, who "didn't remain a silent bystander." The Starbucks patriarch has not been shy in the past about taking a stand on public issues. In 2013, he asked that no customers bring firearms into the stores; that same year when an investor complained about Starbucks supporting a bill that would legalize same-sex marriage in Washington State, Schultz advised the investor to sell his shares and invest somewhere else.
This move to insert himself and Starbucks into an intractable public debate has garnered Schultz and his company a storm of public backlash. Most critics are baffled at the initiative, asking how Schultz expected this campaign to play out. Did he really imagine that customers in a hurry for their cup of morning Joe would be open to discussing race relations with their barista? Skeptics also object to the idea that conversations about race should be discussed at the behest of your CEO or your boss, who you have to make happy in order to pay rent and buy groceries.
Starbucks itself claimed that they wanted to start dialogue between people about race in response to the "racial unrest from Ferguson, Missouri to New York to Oakland." If the instigating factors for the initiative were incidents like Ferguson, critics claim that Starbucks is focusing on trying to get everyone to just get along and glossing over the real problem of a myriad of societal institutions and systems that create inequality for racial minorities.
Some applaud Schultz and Starbucks for a bold attempt at tackling an important issue, even if the execution of the campaign was not perfect. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, former NBA champion and minority-rights advocate, praised the campaign as a "bold decision" but said that Schultz chose "the wrong venue with the wrong audience and the wrong spokespersons." Starbucks may be forced to agree as they ended the cup-writing campaign seven days later. A company spokesperson said that the phase-out is not a reaction to the backlash, but a scheduled transition into the next phase of the #RaceTogether plan: a commitment to hire 10,000 disadvantaged youth within the next three years.
The difference between many of Schultz's past insertions into public issues and the #RaceTogether campaign is that Schultz put the onus of the initiative on employees, many of whom may not have wanted to take part or felt uncomfortable having their personal experiences being discussed and debated around them. A senior vice president of Starbucks blocked users asking about the campaign and then deleted his personal Twitter account after he encountered backlash. This of course only fueled outrage as critics pointed out the irony of asking employees to start a conversation on race, while a high-power executive was unwilling to engage in the topic himself.
Schultz asked his front-line employees to take on his own voice and the voice of the company as a whole and created an uneven power dynamic. Baristas were being asked by their boss to participate in a campaign that involved them engaging with the customers they are obliged to make happy, on a very sensitive topic. As the CEO of a globally recognized corporation, Schultz has a platform to speak out on public issues and even advocate for social change. The problem arises when Schultz asks his employees to do the talking for him.
Readers, do you think that Starbucks got it wrong or right with #RaceTogether? Should companies try and insert themselves into public issues?