Starbucks’ Response to Philly Incident Is Near Textbook Crisis Comms

Thom Weidlich 04.19.18


A week ago Starbucks was hit with a crisis that would have been easy to mishandle. Instead, the coffee chain, and especially its CEO, pretty much nailed it, in what is likely to become a crisis-communications case study worthy of emulation.

As is now widely known, on the night of Thursday, April 12, two men arrived at a Starbucks in central Philadelphia. They said they wanted to use the restroom but the manager told them they couldn’t because they hadn’t made a purchase. When they refused to leave, the manager called the police, who arrested them. The video of the arrest has reportedly been viewed online 10 million times.

The two men are African American, and Starbucks stands accused of racism. Over the weekend and into Monday, demonstrators protested both outside and inside the location. Starbucks appears to have smartly refrained from interfering.

However despicable the inciting incident, the company’s response was marked by seriousness. We could easily imagine a company downplaying its importance, and having a low-level executive deal with it.

That’s not what Seattle-based Starbucks did. CEO Kevin Johnson was out front and center. He issued rolling statements, and not for the usual reason (screwing up the first messages). In Starbucks’ case, the tone was right from the beginning, and the company kept repeating and enhancing what it was saying.


We take these matters seriously and clearly have more work to do when it comes to how we handle incidents in our stores.

— Starbucks

The first statement, usually attributed to Johnson in news reports but also tweeted on the company’s feed, came on Saturday — admittedly, two days after the incident, which was too long. It said, in part:

“We apologize to the two individuals and our customers and are disappointed this led to an arrest. We take these matters seriously and clearly have more work to do when it comes to how we handle incidents in our stores.”

‘Disheartening Situation’

A longer letter from Johnson to employees and customers went into more detail. The CEO referred to the “disheartening situation” that “led to a reprehensible outcome.” He said he would travel to Philadelphia to talk to people there and hoped to apologize to the two men face-to-face (he now apparently has, and the two men, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, appeared on Good Morning America this morning).

Johnson said the company would conduct an investigation into its procedures. “The video shot by customers is very hard to watch and the actions in it are not representative of our Starbucks Mission and Values,” he said.

The CEO said the company would better train employees. On Tuesday, Starbucks said it would close all 8,000 U.S. company-owned stores on the afternoon of May 29 to conduct racial-bias training for 175,000 workers. That’s pretty big. Alas, Starbucks is already being criticized for hiring the Anti-Defamation League for that purpose by those who see that group as anti-Muslim and racist.

Johnson followed up his letter with a two-minute video message he recorded in Philadelphia (pictured). In it, he apologized again to the two men, and repeated that the outcome was “reprehensible.”

‘I Am Accountable’

He explained that the incident was caused by implementing a local practice of asking someone who was not a customer to leave the store. In this case the call to the police was unwarranted. Yet, he said, “this is a management issue, and I am accountable,” clearly taking responsibility.

Johnson comes off in the video as relaxed and sincere (compare that to the dreadful video apology from Equifax now-ex-CEO Rick Smith last year over the company’s data breach).

On Monday morning, Johnson appeared on Good Morning America from Philadelphia where he repeated the same messages. Starbucks retweeted GMA’s tweet flagging that appearance.

Clearly the company was not trying to hide any of this.

Photo Credit: Starbucks

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