CEO gets crisis response back on track after poor start

Crisis responses in 2018 have all too often left a lot to be desired.

From Facebook’s long period of silence at the start of its data crisis, to Oxfam probably wishing its boss had stayed quiet rather than making ill-judged comments which only intensified the issue, the first quarter of this year has seen plenty of mismanaged crises.

Let’s be honest, that has provided this media training blog with plenty of material.

But we also like to write about those organisations who get it right and highlight what others can learn from their handling of a crisis media management situation.

So it has been refreshing to see how well Starbucks has handled its recent time in the media spotlight.

For those not familiar with the story - as coverage has not been as extensive on this side of the Atlantic - two black men were arrested at one of the store’s coffee shops in Philadelphia after an employee called police to say they were trespassing.

They had reportedly not made an order and were refusing to leave, but had done nothing wrong. The incident was caught on camera and uploaded to social media where it has been viewed around 10 million times.  As the views grew, so did the backlash with protests and the hashtag #BoycottStarbucks being shared.

Starbucks found itself facing a PR disaster and its initial response - which was too slow and pretty weak, with vague language such as ‘these matters’ and ‘incidents’ rather than any mention of race, in particular - attracted plenty of criticism. Additionally, saying it was ‘disappointed’ missed the mark by some distance. Weasel words as one of my old bosses would say.



But since then its approach has been strong – with CNN describing it as a ‘crisis response done right’.

Keep reading to find out what they’ve done right and what you can learn from it…


Visible leadership

A good crisis media management response involves senior leaders being visible.

And there is no doubt Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson has put himself at the very centre of how the brand has responded.

After the vague and inadequate initial response, Mr Johnson issued a much more detailed apology letter through the company’s website, and circulated on social media.



He has subsequently issued another apology in the form of a video on the Starbucks website, albeit a little buried in the ‘newsroom’ section.

In both the letter and the video he sounded genuine and took full responsibility for the issues.

Here’s an excerpt that stood out for me from the video. He said: “Now, there has been some calls for us to take action on the store manager. I believe that blame has been misplaced.

“In fact, I think the focus of fixing this, I own it. This is a management issue, and I am accountable to ensure that we address the policy and the practice and the training that led to this outcome. “

As well as being interviewed on numerous news programmes, Mr Johnson has also travelled to Philadelphia to meet with the arrested men, as well as the city’s mayor and police commissioner.



On our crisis communication training courses, we talk about the importance of organisations showing that they are taking action to resolve the issue and prevent it from happening again.

A focal point of Mr Johnson’s messaging has been to ensure an incident like this can’t happen again.

But it is not simply rhetoric. He is backing it up with actions.

The company has announced that it will close more than 8,000 of its stores for part of a day next month, so employees can attend ‘racial bias education’.



It has been reported that this will cost the chain around $16.7 million in lost sales. For a company the size of Starbucks that is a relatively small dent, but it is unusual to see brands go as far as this in their response.

However, it is exactly what it needed to do as it shows a clear commitment to change.

This move has also changed some of the narrative around the story.

Here are a few headlines:

The CEO of Starbucks just passed his biggest leadership test yet Bloomberg

Zuckerberg should look to Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson on how to handle a crisis CNBC

Starbucks’s CEO showed a class example of what a great leader does when managing a crisis INC

It’s also worth looking at some of the wording included in the announcement on the closures.

Phrases like ‘we’re taking a hard look at who we are as a company’ and ‘we’re ashamed’ sounds like a company which is desperately trying to come to terms with what it has done wrong and learn from it.

The tone had, rightfully, shifted a long way from the ‘disappointment’ of the initial response.


Social media

Social media can be something of a minefield for companies during a crisis.

While it certainly plays a role in ensuring messages get out quickly, many organisations tend to shy away from it during a crisis fearing backlashes.

Of course social media can often be a place where reason and perspective are abandoned at log-in, but it is important this does not prevent brands from using it.

What I have liked about the Starbucks response, is the way it has used social media to engage with many of those who have commented on their posts during this crisis, irrespective of whether they are critical or are praising the company's response.

Each response appears individual and conversational and a far cry from the robotic stance often adopted by companies on these channels during a crisis.


Starbucks remains under the microscope and this is not the type of issue that will go away quickly. Its initial response aside, the chain has dealt with the crisis well so far and that appears to have limited the damage.

The key now is to ensure it builds on that initial good work.

What this particular crisis also shows is that with a lot of skill and commitment, brands can recover even if they do not get their initial response right.



*Download our FREE eBook to find out more about planning for a crisis. It includes a checklist to helping you identify the right spokesperson, messaging templates and a risk register to help you identify your organisation’s vulnerabilities.


Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 30 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers. 

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