Howard Schultz is the CEO of Starbucks, (the largest coffee making company in the world). He’s also a social activist who believes corporations have an obligation to society beyond commercial activities that impact their bottom lines. According to Schultz, the role of a corporate leader is evolving and leaders now have the capacity to spark conversations on social issues. The initiative, “Race Together”, emerged from this belief.
The objective of Race Together was to spark a national dialogue about race equality in America, in response to the killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown (two unarmed black men) in 2014. Because of these events and many others, racial tensions were high across America and Schultz felt Race Together would help dialogue and subsequently, solutions. As part of the initiative, Schultz wrote a memo to his employees asking them to inscribe “Race Together” on every cup of coffee purchased in Starbucks stores. Customers were also to be engaged in conversations about race. But there was a serious backlash on social media.
Race Together received 2.5 billion impressions in less than 48 hours mostly driven by negative tweets targeted at Howard Schultz. This was not Schultz’s first attempt at addressing social issues as a CEO, so why the backlash?
In 1988, motivated by an employee dying of AIDS, Schultz persuaded the Starbucks Board to extend full health benefits to part-time workers. In 2000, Starbucks started selling fair-trade certified coffee in the U.S and Canada to ensure that farmers were ethically compensated and educated in sustainable practices. In 2009, Starbucks partnered with Bono’s Red campaign to help provide anti-retroviral medication to people in Africa living with HIV and AIDS. So what went wrong with Race Together?
A significant contributor to the negative backlash was the failure of Starbucks to recognise how new media (particularly social media) worked and its role in shaping corporate narratives. The spread of information on social media is swift, decisive and many times out of the control of the initiator. Social media users “own” conversations which they can spin out of control and in directions not intended by the initiators. This can happen in minutes.
An example of this was Access Bank Nigeria’s W Awards Campaign. The corporate communication which preceded the awards was meant to demonstrate the bank’s focus on women empowerment. However, the ad copy played to female stereotypes, negating the purpose of the campaign. This caused an uproar within the female online community, who thought the adverts were sexist. The bank was forced to discontinue the adverts, rescript and then reintroduce them. It also apologised.
These scenarios at Starbucks and Access Bank emphasise the need for better control of information dissemination online and institution of crisis management systems on social media.
The following pointers can help an organisation shape and control its social media narrative:
- Do not import offline campaigns to social media without first contextualizing them for a social media audience.
- Tell your story clearly using links to longer blog posts and articles which frame a complete picture of your message.
- Moderate your narrative and be ready to respond swiftly and dynamically to objections or requests for clarity.
- Cultivate strong supporters. Do not let social media trolls hijack your message.
- When things go wrong, promptly apologise and correct your course. Do not insist on a narrative simply because you’ve invested heavily in it.
- Social media users may spin your message in different ways but your official handles should stay on message and provide a coherent narrative for anyone to follow.
In conclusion, we believe social media use is important for organisations in the digital age. However, organisations must match the scale of their marketing spend with the sophistication of their digital strategies and the capabilities of those who implement those strategies.
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