Starbucks has a genius for two things: promotion of over-roasted coffee and tsunamis of trouble over cultural clashes. Actually, make it three things. As happened with the arrest of two African-American men at one of its Philadelphia stores, the company shows its ability to compound a mistake until it becomes explosive.

Whether holiday coffee cups or its clumsy attempt to facilitate discussions of race, Starbucks has repeatedly instigated trouble that most other companies manage to avoid. This only difference with this most recent flub is the increased ineptitude in managing a crisis.

The arrest of two black customers because they hadn't purchased anything while waiting for a third person to join them for a business meeting was the result of a local manager's bad decision. Did anyone ask the two men why they hadn't bought anything yet before calling 911 because one of them used the bathroom and neither would leave? It sure doesn't seem so. And you can bet rent money that had they been white, the question would never have arisen.

As Chris Matyszczyk noted on, the initial Starbucks statement fell woefully short of what it needed to do:

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. We are reviewing our policies and will continue to engage with the community and the police department to try to ensure these types of situations never happen in any of our stores.

They were "disappointed"? Not as much as they were about to be. Criticism on social media and elsewhere was significant.

By Saturday, CEO Kevin Johnson issued a much longer statement in which he talked about a "disheartening situation" that led to a "reprehensible outcome." There would be meetings and an investigation and outside experts. And more training, to be sure employees knew when to call the police.

Actor Kevin Hart, who is from Philadelphia, pointed out that the problem seemed like one of local management, not a systemic issue.

But still, no one apparently has been fired because, for some reason, no one seems to be responsible, at least as far as you could tell from the company's reaction. Looking for a company to investigation a situation before taking action is reasonable. However, really, how long does it take to figure out whether a manager wrongly called the police? The incident happened last Thursday. That was more than enough time to talk view the video, talk to the manager on duty and other employees, and then make one of three decisions.

If the manager had a good reason to call the police (which seems incredibly unlikely given the public evidence), Starbucks should say so. If the manager over reacted, then Starbucks should say so, and likely fire the person, as that would be a major lapse of judgment. Third, if the manager did exactly as corporate training instructed, then keep the manager and assume all the blame.

None of that has happened, which means that in a critical situation, the company is not deploying its resources quickly enough nor taking action as necessary. A crisis management firm told USA Today, "big companies like Starbuck's understand something they will never communicate publicly: You have limited control over what a few of your ignorant employees do." And that is true, in a sense. You hire people who then hire people and so on, and with many thousands of employees, some putz will do the wrong thing. Which is why you fire the person and say you have.

By trying to portray the company as sensitive, avoid recriminations, manage a major PR hit, and dance around liability issues with customers and employees, Starbucks effectively has done nothing. That's why this issue hasn't gone away and won't.

Published on: Apr 16, 2018
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