Starbucks has made its way to the top of our news feeds again, but this time it’s not about a new, outlandish frap or the return of beloved seasonal drinks. Following the unwarranted arrest of two black customers in a Philadelphia Starbucks on April 12, the coffeehouse chain has become a central subject in the nation’s ongoing racial debate and dialogue.
Last week, the two men who were arrested made headlines again when they reached a settlement with the city and the coffee chain. With several apology statements issued by the company and interviews from Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson, there’s a lot communication professionals can learn about making an effective public apology.
1. Jack be nimble, Jack be quick.
Bad news travels at lightning speed, and catching up or getting ahead of a communication crisis poses a challenge. How fast you respond is critical during a communication crisis.
When a company’s or individual’s reputation is in jeopardy, waiting more than a day to issues a response is often arguably too late to correct misconceptions and get ahead of the story. Starbucks, for example, took two full days to issue an apology statement. Meanwhile, boycotts and protests at the Philadelphia store ensued. While Johnson’s apology was written effectively, issuing a response the next day might’ve helped to mitigate the crisis more effectively.
We apologize to the two individuals and our customers for what took place at our Philadelphia store on Thursday. pic.twitter.com/suUsytXHks
— Starbucks (@Starbucks) April 14, 2018
Granted, Starbucks may have not been able to stop customer protests by issuing their response a day sooner. But, in the initial news stories and social media conversations, the company was not a part of the dialogue. Failure to issue a speedy response leaves your adversaries more room to attack your actions, and it leaves your remaining supporters questioning your accountability and credibility.
Best practice advice is to issue a quick statement and update on your company’s website, and social media accounts within 24 hours of the crisis. These platforms allow you the opportunity to arm people with the facts and ensure you have the chance to tell your side of the story.
2. Honesty is the Best Policy.
Starbucks’ apology is a glowing example of how a company can show full accountability, transparency and honesty in an apology statement. Johnson took full responsibility for the crisis, stating that the incident was “reprehensible” and recognizing that the coffee chain would take action to prevent further discrimination or racial profiling.”
Addressing tough issues, particularly those that involve race relations, aren’t always easy. But if your bad conscience is standing over your shoulder, whispering in your ear telling you to lie or go into defense mode, don’t! Misleading the public or issuing disingenuous apologies will only fuel controversy and bad press. If you need an example of this, look no further than last year’s United Airlines controversy when CEO Oscar Munoz’s apology sparked public outrage.
In short, candid and compassionate communications during a crisis will typically be most rewarding in the end.
3. Put your money where your mouth is.
Too often, public apologies are followed by empty promises of change and improvement. One strength of Johnson’s apology is that is was followed by swift action.
Within five days of the incident, the Starbucks CEO met with the two men who were arrested for a face-to-face apology, the employee who called the police no longer works at the coffee shop and, most notably, Starbucks announced it will close more than 8,000 stores on May 29 for an anti-bias employee training.
It takes longer than a day and we’re willing to continue working on this. There are countless examples of implicit bias resulting in discrimination against people of color, both in and outside our stores.
— Starbucks (@Starbucks) April 17, 2018
Of course, one-day training won’t solve the world’s racial bias problems, but with Starbucks promising to extend their efforts beyond a day of training, all eyes will be on the brand to see what their next move will be.
The key takeaway here is to show, not tell. Don’t just say you want to change, prove it. Not delivering on a promise of improvement will only work to diminish your credibility and invite your key audiences not take you seriously. An apology can only go so far to address an issue, and your efforts will fall flat if they’re not backed up with tangible action.