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THE INC. LIFE

How Starbucks Went From PR Management to PR Disaster Over the Philadelphia Arrest Video

A video shows two black men being arrested at a Starbucks for apparently no good reason. Then Twitter erupts.

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BY Chris Matyszczyk - 15 Apr 2018

How Starbucks Went From PR Management to PR Disaster Over the Philadelphia Arrest Video

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek.

 

Perhaps Starbucks thought it could handle it.

After a video showing two black men being arrested in a Philadelphia Starbucks was posted on Thursday to Twitter by Melissa DePino, there was a slow burn of online rage.

Here were two black men being confronted by six police officers, handcuffed and led away, as a white man who said they were waiting for him pleaded with police to tell him what these men had done wrong.

The men, identified by the Philadelphia Inquirer as real estate developers, were subsequently released without charge.

After all, the Starbucks manager had apparently called police solely because the men had sat in the restaurant and declined to buy anything.

As the retweets of the video multiplied, the local police commissioner Richard Ross insisted his officers had simply performed their duty.

He explained that the police had received a call from Starbucks accusing the men of "disturbance and trespass."

"These officers did absolutely nothing wrong," he insisted.

Disappointment.

I got the sense that, even on Saturday, when the video had been viewed by millions, Starbucks thought this was manageable.

It first issued a somewhat guarded statement:

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.

Disappointed? Is that all?

There was no real sense of suggesting that anyone at Starbucks might be to blame.

Worse, the statement referred to what happened as an "incident," when there's no evidence any sort of incident took place.

After all, other customers in the restaurant insisted the men had done nothing wrong.

Subsequently, voices within Starbucks suggested to me that this restaurant had been robbed at gunpoint two weeks before, and so was on heightened alert.

There's no question that those who work in restaurants, bars and other retail establishments always have to exercise acute awareness.

The video, however, appears to show nothing but overreaction, while the men remain completely calm.

I talked to a couple of Starbucks managers in the Bay Area who told me that they do, indeed, call the police when they feel any sort of disturbance or threat.

This, they said, was made easier by the fact that the local police are customers of their restaurants and they know them personally.

At heart, though, the managers said they make judgments about what might be a threat and what definitely isn't.

In the Philadelphia case, the impression given by Starbucks was that the manager was simply following company policies.

Otherwise, why else would the company say it needed to review those policies?

Urgency.

By Saturday evening, however, it seemed clear that the company's tone had changed and that a certain level of urgency and even panic had set in, perhaps too late.

Starbucks released a letter to partners -- what Starbucks calls employees -- and customers from CEO Kevin Johnson.

In it, he unequivocally said: "The basis for the call to the Philadelphia police department was wrong."

Where the first statement had, stunningly, made no mention of the glaring issue of race in the incident, Johnson's letter said he wanted to "reassure you that Starbucks stands firmly against discrimination or racial profiling."

Where the first statement said that Starbucks would review its policies, Johnson's letter reiterated that policies needed to be looked at, but also said: "I hope to meet personally with the two men who were arrested to offer a face-to-face apology."

Johnson tried to take responsibility, while apparently attempting to alleviate some of the burden on the manager.

"Our store manager never intended for these men to be arrested and this should never have escalated as it did," he said.

At the same time, he wrote: "I know our store managers and partners work hard to exceed our customers' expectations every day -- which makes this very poor reflection on our company all the more painful."

So the manager's actions led to a very poor reflection on the company?

Criticism is being relentlessly aimed at Starbucks.

After all, this happened at a restaurant owned by a company that presents itself as a bastion of progressive values.

Just as United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz during the infamous passenger-dragging incident -- his employees had called on police to evict the passenger from the plane -- Johnson admitted in his letter that "the video shot by customers is very hard to watch."

Yet Starbucks initial reaction was merely disappointment.

United remains something of a much-repeated joke in many people's eyes, even though it's taken several steps to improve.

How long will it take Starbucks to retrieve what may have been lost?

Perhaps the urgency should have set in a little earlier.

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