Public Relations

Hashtags, Lattés, and the Power of PR

Starbucks, the international brewer of overpriced venti cappuccinos, recently launched a Twitter hashtag campaign entitled, “#SpreadTheCheer.”

The idea was that users would jump on the hashtag to spread good will and holiday spirit, all while promoting the Starbucks brand. A seemingly harmless plan, users set out in droves to use the hashtag.

Unfortunately for Starbucks, they were also making news on another plain. According toBranding Magazine, which was citing research from Reuters, “the company devised a legal way of making fake losses through royalty payments for use of the brand and other global fees, and that way the company cut income tax. Starbucks UK has paid less then 1% in corporation tax over 14 years. Now they have to pay an amount of  $20 million in taxes in two years.”

Ouch. This news, coinciding with a hashtag campaign about spreading cheer, proved to be a PR nightmare for Starbucks.

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And it gets worse. At the Natural History Museum in London, where Starbucks sponsors the ice rink on the premises, there was a large screen displaying all of the Tweets containing that hashtag as they came in. 140-character bundles of venom, profanity and all, were displayed for all to see.

Additionally, it was revealed earlier this month that Starbucks would be cutting employee benefits – including maternity leave, paid lunch breaks and sick leave. This revelation only fueled the fire of an already angry Twitterverse.

If your business is ever running a hashtag campaign, let the plight of Starbucks be a cautionary tale. We had planned on embedding some of the Tweets in this blog, but, frankly, this is a family-friendly site.

If you run a Twitter hashtag campaign, there are three crucial things to remember.

1. Hashtags don’t go away if the conversation isn’t over.

As recently as one hour prior to this blog being written, there were still Tweets wishing ill-will towards Starbucks, and this hashtag was launched well over a week ago.

2. Social media are the front lines of public relations.

Public sentiment is more accessible than ever, and no one will hold back. Starbucks was caught in a hurricane of profanity and ugly customer interaction. That’s what happens when you cut wages and benefits. Even the most savvy and proficient PR directors are helpless in a violent social media avalanche.

3. Even Santa can’t salvage a brand image.

Starbucks was banking on the spirit and cheer of the holidays to inspire its audience. We live in an age of disdain towards corporations. If shady practices are brought to light, particularly on a stage as large as the one Starbucks lives on, that will take precedent. People are always more likely to act when they are furious. Starbucks learned that the hard way.

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Comments: 2

  • Interesting piece Lou. So many corporations and PR company don’t think about their hash-tag campaign before they release them into the twitter-verse and end up paying the price. Who can forget the Susan Boyle blunder earlier this year when she launched her new album? I would write the actual hash-tag but, as you said, this is a family friendly site.

    All it would of taken Starbucks would have been to have someone regulating the tweets and only posting the appropriate ones onto the big screen. Or better yet, they should have just paid the right amount of tax like the rest of us.

  • Thanks for the comment Eilidh.

    You hit the nail right on the head. Understanding the potential public embarrassment that social media can create was something Starbucks never completely grasped.

    Nothing is private anymore. And when everyone has a microphone, even the biggest corporation is not safe.

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