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.

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