Starbucks Diversity Training Exposes Bias…About PR

There has been a lot of froth surrounding the decision by Starbucks to close for part of today to offer “diversity training” to its band of barristas in 8,000 stores.

The move comes after a well-publicized incident where two black men at a Philadelphia store who hadn’t bought anything used the restroom and were arrested.

There’s much to discuss about the incident from a diversity as well as retail policy perspective. But there is another level of bias here, not against a particular race, but against the profession of public relations.

Many media accounts I’ve read include some quote or comment that the closing of stores to do diversity training is….”just PR.”

The use of the diminutive and pejorative adjective “just” with the name of the profession is a bias of its own. It implies that ALL PR is minimal or not genuine. Attribution theory would say that people don’t judge by a person or organization’s actions as much as they do by speculated reasons for them. That’s what’s going on here. People assume the ONLY reason Starbucks is doing this is to cover a bad incident.

This kind of dishonest stereotype of the PR profession by the news media goes back to its emergence in the 1920s. (See my article on the subject). One would think that journalists who criticize PR professionals for being less than complete with the truth would endeavor to demonstrate the appropriate tone with their coverage of PR.

But we don’t know that for sure. It could be a genuine response. And it could be fundamental PR, not “just” PR. Consider:

1. It’s about maintaining brand reputation. In open letter full page ads today, on its web site and in other tactics Starbucks CEO shares his vision when launching the company that its stores be a ‘third place” between home and work where all are welcome. The training is an attempt to return to that culture and maintain the atmosphere that was as much a part of its culture as the coffee. People who assume otherwise confuse image with reputation.

2. It’s classic crisis communication. The various crisis communication theories advise doing what goes against what people unschooled in PR would suspect. In this case, Starbucks was quick to admit a problem, own it, apologize, and move to rectify it.

3. PR is more than media relations. While much publicity has occurred, Starbucks is acting on the premise that most with broad experience in PR realize–it’s about building and maintain mutual relationships with all publics, not just managing the press. Coverage of this incident is secondary. Starbucks wants patrons and community members to have a positive relationship with each store. They are working toward this long after the story fades in the media.

4. It’s about stakeholder theory. Other novices and those who don’t bother to learn what PR really is would suspect it’s core purpose has to do with customers. But this is a classic case of balancing the often competing interests of multiple publics–customers, stockholders, employees, and the community or public opinion. Allowing anyone to use the bathroom, whether paying customer or not, sounds generous. But  some customers have complained that the flow of non-customers in and out to use the toilet will be disruptive. Starbucks is working to handle a real diversity issue while keeping in mind the cost of closing for a half day and maintaining relationship with paying customers and keeping barristas happy and on message.

5. It  really is about diversity. Anyone who knows anything about the PR profession would have to know about the heavy emphasis on diversity in the last 10 years. It’s reached a point where it is not a bend to public sentiment but it is a critical business imperative to be competitive in everything from recruiting talent to attracting investment to sales.

So I’d watch the story and it’s fall out over the next few days and weeks. Anyone who says what Starbucks is doing is “just” PR just doesn’t get it. Or worse, they’re just a journalist.

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