The Power and Politics of Business

(Note: My post from last week, as well as this one, veers away from the area of social media in the context of public relations and addresses broader social topics. I’ll return to my regular posting soon but lately I’ve developed a strong interest in community building, creating better online communities, and politics, which is something I’d like to explore for the time being.)

This week, after five short days, Starbucks ended its poorly conceived “Race Together” campaign, which was introduced by the company’s CEO Howard Schultz. The initiative was designed to generate conversations between baristas and customers on the very sensitive and extremely complicated topic of race. From its introduction, the campaign proved to be divisive and was met with significant online criticism – some saw the movement as “cause marketing,” and and others felt that the topic was too difficult for Starbucks employees to address without proper training. Some critics of the “Race Together” campaign found the discussion problematic because of the context; all they wanted was to get their coffee without having to engage in a political conversation. Meanwhile many felt that Starbucks was furthering its own agenda.

To my knowledge, the campaign was never rolled out in Canada so I don’t have first hand experience. However, scrolling through a Twitter search of #RaceTogether, you see a wide variety of commentary and while most of the posts were directed specifically at the Starbucks initiative, in and amongst those tweets you find messages revealing the extent and complexity of this topic. Although the company maintained that the initiative was only meant to be temporary, less than a week in, the plug was pulled. Admittedly, the campaign didn’t achieve its original goal but it did raise some important questions about what we want organizations to provide for us, outside of their core business or product. What level of engagement should organizations offer? And as users, what do we seek? What channels do we want to use? Would the initiative have been better received if it had been rolled out differently, primarily in an online forum rather than in person, allowing the consumer to opt-in rather than feel coerced into conversation? The answers obviously differ from situation to situation.

In the same week that Starbucks and Schultz had to deal with the fall-out from their initiative to discuss racial issues, Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce.com, a customer relationship management (CRM) tool, is being lauded for his decision to cancel all company events in Indiana, after Gov. Mike Pence signed a bill that discriminates against LGBTQ individuals. In addition to cancelling events, Mr. Benioff has suggested that further changes may take place in the future if the law isn’t reversed, and his actions firmly mark Salesforce’s corporate stance on this issue. Other organizations and businesses are beginning to follow suit and have questioned their future in Indiana if changes aren’t made.

Starbucks’ initiative aimed to generate conversation whereas Salesforce’s decision has a direct impact on business; the former was heavily criticized while the latter is generally being praised, so why the difference in reaction? Both issues- race and LGBTQ rights- are controversial and frequently discussed in the media including on social media. Both are subject to polarizing commentary from hardliners on all sides, so it can’t be a matter of subject palatability.

I believe that one of the major contributing factors to how these two stories were received has to do with perceived intent. Rightly or wrongly, the Starbucks campaign was seen by some as corporate leveraging of people’s experiences to make money, attempting to profit off current racial tension in the United States. Although there are obvious benefits to doing business in an inclusive environment, as The Daily Beast has suggested, Salesforce’s decision doesn’t set the company up for immediate financial gain. Their call for reform is motivated by a desire to protect their own employees, and potential clients but mostly because it is the right thing to do, it sends the message that LGBTQ and human rights are worth defending. Their product is fairly specific in function meaning that their support of the LGBTQ community isn’t likely to fuel an influx of new customers, therefore the motivating force seems more genuine.

Another problem with Starbucks’ initiative is the disconnect between their messaging and their audience. “Race Together” was built around the romanticized notion of the coffee house; as a place for intellectuals to converse and debate. In some ways, you would think the pairing would be perfect and link Starbucks, one of the best known coffee retailers in the world, with this intellectual tradition. While this is a viable option for some coffee houses, Starbucks is not one of those places. From the public’s perspective, Starbucks is as much about coffee as it is big business, continuing to expand into new markets and experience financial growth, and the attempt to fuel race-based discussion is often met with scrutiny, if not resistance. Moreover, Starbucks’ client base is enormous and anything but homogenous, so it’s difficult to craft an inclusive message that isn’t vague or appear to be an affront on anyone’s opinion. What you’re left with is this seemingly safe, corporate “Race Together” message that doesn’t invoke the complexities of the topic and does nothing to provoke conversation. It doesn’t mean much to anyone, especially when you compare that to the strength and decisiveness of Mr. Benioff’s actions, which clearly demonstrates their corporate philosophy towards inclusiveness and equality.

While I will fault Schultz for the execution of “Race Together” as overly ambitious and misguided, I appreciate the effort to engage and discuss tough topics. I believe that this willingness to address weighty issues is something that should be encouraged in corporations and their leadership, an idea further explored by the Harvard Business Review. CEOs and upper management, particularly in large organizations, have a unique position because they have the ability and power to influence, not only in matters of business but socially as well. For users of the social web, we have a right and I would argue, a responsibility, to speak up against things we find problematic as people did to Starbucks. But if we demand more corporate social responsibility, engagement, and CEO-led participation, we also have to make room for these discussions and provide feedback that allows businesses and organizations better engage with the public because personally, I would rather have a flawed discussion than no discussion at all.

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