Communication Matters - our blog on trends and events


#RaceTogether didn’t quite come together

Whatever you thought of Starbucks Corporation’s #RaceTogether campaign, most of us would agree that the concept behind it was admirable – to improve race relations in the United States by encouraging dialogue.

After the Rodney King riots, the Akron Beacon Journal won the Pulitzer Prize for public service, in part, by encouraging dialogue between the races. I was fortunate enough to play a role in that effort.

So I was disappointed when the Starbucks campaign was derailed within hours of launch, largely because of a flawed appreciation for how the campaign would play in the media.

When Starbucks launched #RaceTogether, it did a lot of things quite well. Its website featured a well-written message titled “What ‘Race Together’ Means for Starbucks Partners and Customers”  and a heartfelt video message from CEO Howard Schultz.

The written message started in dramatic fashion: “As racially-charged tragedies unfolded in communities across the country, the chairman and CEO of Starbucks didn’t remain a silent bystander. Howard Schultz voiced his concerns with partners (employees) in the company’s Seattle headquarters and started a discussion about race in America.”

It continued: “‘We at Starbucks should be willing to talk about these issues in America,’ Schultz said. ‘Not to point fingers or to place blame, and not because we have answers, but because staying silent is not who we are.’"

The message then explains that as part of the campaign, Starbucks employees at one support center shared personal stories of racially charged interactions. The post goes on to invite Starbucks customers to “join the discussion” and says full-page ads in The New York Times and USA Today would further explore the need for improved race relations in the United States. The fact that Starbucks baristas were encouraged to engage customers in the conversation also was included, but it certainly was not the only aspect of the campaign.

The content marketing included a six-minute-plus video featuring Schultz. The video was heartfelt and effective.

And yet, after the campaign was announced, it didn’t take long for the coverage to sour.

Starbucks’ posted message “What ‘Race Together Means’“ was dated March 16. Within 48 hours, the media were denigrating the campaign, and focusing on the baristas.

 Starbucks faces criticism over “Race Together” Campaign was posted and broadcast on NPR.

Within a week, Starbucks announced that the baristas’ role in the effort was completed. The media declared the campaign a failure.

Why Starbucks’ #RaceTogether Campaign Flopped appeared in Philadelphia Magazine on March 24.

Hindsight is convenient for those of us outside Starbucks’ Seattle walls. Still, if Starbucks had realized that reporters – who are paid to be skeptical – would focus primarily on the most troublesome aspect of the campaign, I suspect company strategists would have altered the campaign. Perhaps baristas would have only written #RaceTogether on cups and not been asked to engage customers.

Consider how the communications would have fared then. The content marketing and media relations efforts would have blended far more effectively. More journalists would have considered the merits of the #RaceTogether concept rather than its flaws of execution. #RaceTogether would have elevated racial awareness. Schultz would have been lauded for his vision and dedication to a critical topic. And the nation would have been a bit better off.

If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to send an email or give me a call. I can be reached at or 216.241.2145.

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