Howard Schultz says he is not backing down from his goal of making Starbucks a place where America discusses race, even after receiving a flood of negative feedback on social media.
The “Race Together” campaign, which kicked off a week ago, invited baristas to start a conversation with customers about race by writing the words “Race Together” on their coffee cups. In a letter sent to employees yesterday, Schultz, who is Starbucks’ Chairman and CEO, said the cup-writing campaign ended Sunday as originally planned.
The attempt to create Starbucks as a forum for discussing such touchy topics as race was met with some anger — and a lot of sarcasm — on social media. Critics fairly pointed out how challenging it would be for baristas, who have no formal training in discussion race, to chat with customers over such an intense topic while hustling to steam milk for the next customer.
— April (@ReignOfApril) March 17, 2015
At one point, the backlash was so intense Corey duBrowa, Starbucks SVP of Corporate Communication, blocked Twitter users and deleted his account. “I felt personally attacked in a cascade of negativity. I got overwhelmed by the volume and tenor of the discussion, and I reacted,” he explained, on a post on Medium.
He’s back on Twitter now. In fact, it was on Twitter, where duBrowa objected to our original headline for this story. It inadvertently suggested that the whole campaign was shutting — not just the cup-writing portion. We updated the story to eliminate any confusion.
— Dina D. Pomeranz (@dinapomeranz) March 17, 2015
Late last year, in reaction to events in Ferguson, Mo. and other troubling incidents, the company hosted a number of unscripted forums with employees to talk about the subject of race. Last week, Starbucks spent more than an hour at its annual shareholder meeting, discussing the steps it had taken internally to start a dialogue.
Starbucks asked its board member Mellody Hobson, an African American woman and president of Ariel Investments, to share a portion of her popular TED talk, Color blind or color brave? And, Common, who performed “Glory,” the gospel-influenced song for the movie Selma at this year’s Grammy Awards, spoke to the audience about his experiences as a black man. The day’s events ended with a stirring performance by Grammy Award-winning Jennifer Hudson, who concluded her set with the song “Hallelujah.”
After listening to the whole presentation, you could understand why they believed the discussion was ready to occur on a larger scale, however, without that context, customers no doubt found it a leap to host such conversations over your morning cup of coffee.
In his letter Sunday, Schultz addressed the backlash: “An issue as tough as racial and ethnic inequality requires risk-taking and tough-minded action. And let me reassure you that our conviction and commitment to the notion of equality and opportunity for all has never been stronger.”
Starbucks still intends on continuing the campaign. It has also formed a partnership with USA Today, which will ran a special insert on Friday about race relations. Three more are planned over the next year. Schutlz said he remained committed to the cause, but that he will be taking stock in where it goes next.
“While there has been criticism of the initiative — and I know this hasn’t been easy for any of you — let me assure you that we didn’t expect universal praise,” he wrote. “We leaned in because we believed that starting this dialogue is what matters most. We are learning a lot. And will always aim high in our efforts to make a difference on the issues that matter most.”