When Faced with Crises: What We Can Learn from Starbucks

— Jessica Jeng 

In recent years, Starbucks has generated a huge amount of press coverage for its social initiatives. From committing to hiring 10,000 refugees globally by 2022, to celebrating those who are doing extraordinary things to effect positive change, it’s no surprise the world-famous coffee brand was recently ranked by Fortune as one of the World’s Most Admired Companies.

Unfortunately, being beloved means that when things go wrong, the scrutiny and consequences come twice as hard. At the beginning of this month, a Philadelphia Starbucks came under fire when a viral video revealed two black men being escorted out of the store because they hadn’t ordered anything. This prompted a furious backlash on social media, including a call to #BoycottStarbucks.

Against this backdrop, there are valuable communications lessons we can learn from Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson on how to handle public crises to minimise damage to the brand, while also regaining trust and loyalty from consumers.


Don’t dally on your position


The best thing Johnson could do after the incident was to come out with a strong statement and stance on what happened. Considering the size, scale and franchising of Starbucks, it’s impressive that Johnson was able to get properly informed about the incident and ensured the statement he shared was in line with Starbucks’ values, all within the span of 48 hours.




The biggest lesson we can take from Johnson is to have a solution to tackle the problem. Choosing to shut down more than 8,000 stores across the U.S. to conduct racial-bias training for employees shows consumers that it cares more about the people than the profit. For consumers, this proves that Starbucks intends to make sure this doesn’t happen again.


Show accountability


From the beginning, Johnson has shown accountability for what happened. In multiple interviews, he has said he wants to meet with the men that were affected. He also recognises that these incidents do not stop with the store manager, but should be discussed and considered even within the upper echelons of the management team. In short, he recognises that as CEO, he is responsible and accountable for the employee culture and actions at Starbucks.

While it remains to be seen what the short- and long-term consequences of this incident will be, it is safe to say that technology and social media played a huge role in bringing these incidents to light, and can be used to bridge transparency and hold companies accountable. As such, CEOs and business leaders need to be ready to take a stand, speak out and infuse purpose and integrity into all facets of their brand and business. And we, as communicators, need to be ready to help them navigate these ever-changing times.