Crisis Response: Did Starbucks Get It Right?

All good intentions, training, and management direction can be almost totally wiped out with a single incident. Just ask Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson.

On April 12, 2018, two black men, Donte Robinson and Rashon Nelson, went to a Philadelphia Starbucks to meet a friend and talk real estate. While waiting, Nelson asked to use the restroom and was told “No, they are only for paying customers.”

What happened next differs based on who is telling the story. The manager claims Nelson cursed at her. He says no, he did not. Allegedly, the manager asked the pair to leave, and they refused. She then called 911 and said the men were not making a purchase and refused to leave.

Reports were that they had only been in the store a couple of minutes.

Enter the police. Surprisingly, the police arrested the two men for trespassing and handcuffed them on the spot. Of course, this response by the police was caught on a smartphone video by a Starbucks customer. That video went viral and was viewed over 10 million times.

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A crisis? You bet. It can be argued that Starbucks culture wasn’t strong enough to prevent such an incident and that their people weren’t properly trained. That may be true, but Starbucks’ initial corporate response to the incident gets good marks. The Philadelphia Police Department, not so much.

Initially, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross stated that the responding officers followed procedure and did absolutely nothing wrong. He later changed course, apologizing and stating that his statements had made things worse. He also admitted that the police department shared some of the responsibility for the incident with Starbucks.

OK, so why did Starbucks get good marks for their initial response? Starbucks’ CEO (Johnson) immediately agreed to fly to Philadelphia to meet with Robinson and Nelson. In that meeting, he apologized to them and openly admitted that the company was totally wrong. He said that Starbucks customers sometimes spend long hours there and are not necessarily expected to make a purchase. He further admitted that Starbucks practices and training led to a bad outcome. Later, Johnson announced that the company will close all its stores on May 29 in order to conduct racial bias training for all its employees.

Is all this enough? Probably not. It will take a long time and a lot of effort for Starbucks to fully recover from an incident that should never have happened. But from a pure initial crisis response, Starbucks got it mostly right. Their CEO was immediately front and center and acted as the company’s spokesperson. He was empathetic, admitted the company’s mistakes, and apologized to the victims. In addition, he ordered an immediate re-training of all Starbucks employees.

It’s not known if the Starbucks response was part of a pre-existing crisis management plan, but the following general crisis principles should be adhered to by all companies:

  • In a serious incident, have the highest-ranking officer (preferably the CEO) act as the company’s spokesperson. Be sure there are formally identified alternates, that they know who they are, and that they are well trained.
  • In developing a crisis plan, work with experts to develop a SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats). Use the results as a guide.
  • Consider the needs of your internal and external audiences. What do your employees, customers, partners, and the public need and expect from you in terms of communication, service and reassurances? Plan for all of it.
  • Develop a communications plan and train all levels of employees on it, as appropriate. Conduct actual crisis communications training drills for individuals that would normally serve as company spokespersons to the press.
  • Drill, drill, drill. Practice, practice, practice.

Effective crisis response can actually make a company stronger. Such was the case with Johnson & Johnson’s response to the Tylenol tampering murders of 1982. The pulling of all of their product off the shelves and their execution of a well-thought-out crisis plan, as well as the communication that went with it has become a textbook example of how to do it right.

And then there is Facebook. I wrote about their missteps in handling their “hacking incident” in the Insider in March. As a result, CEO Mark Zuckerberg has spent more time before Congress than he ever imagined. The long-term impact to Facebook is still unknown.

Companies need to have effective crisis planning and response protocols in place. No matter your position, work hard to be sure your company does.

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