This blog features a paper in the latest issue of the PR Journal.

Increasingly, we have seen an influx of companies publicly voicing their positions on a range of social issues. This tide of social advocacy by companies matches the expectations of stakeholders—including the ‘general’ public, consumers, and employees—regarding a company’s role in the social conversation. According to a recent survey, two-thirds of consumers believe it is important for brands to take a stand on social and political issues (Oster, 2018). These efforts, however, must be perceived as legitimate and not merely as attempts by companies to burnish their reputations in the interest of turning a profit. When corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts are perceived as insincere, the public may grow skeptical of the motives behind such activities. Thus, the implementation of corporate advocacy is a tricky area requiring sensitivity and finesse. To learn strategic lessons about what does and does not work in this area, we examined a social advocacy campaign by Starbucks.

Starbucks, a company that has often been lauded for its CSR initiatives, entered into the racially charged conversations stemming from tragedies involving the killing of unarmed black men by the police (Candea, 2015). Starbucks’ 2015 Race Together campaign was launched when the company first held open forums for employees to discuss issues of race and then went public by having baristas write “Race Together” on customers’ cups to initiate conversations about race. The campaign immediately drew national media attention and widespread derision online. The overall reaction signaled a major disconnect between the company’s purported intentions and the public’s understanding of those intentions.

To assess the public backlash and to understand the short- and long-term consequences Starbucks experienced because of the campaign’s implementation, we conducted a mixed-methods case study. Specifically, we combined thematic analysis of social media posts using the Starbucks employee-specific hashtag #tobeapartner and the campaign-specific #racetogether hashtag; interviews with Starbucks employees; an examination of Starbucks financial reports; and a variety of corporate reputation rankings before, during, and after the implementation of the Race Together campaign.

The results showed that much of the public criticism stemmed from Starbucks’ execution of the campaign and its use of employees as social cause ambassadors. Employees felt that there was a lack of training and communication during the implementation of the campaign and that the company rushed the campaign’s execution in order to be part of a greater social movement. Moreover, although Starbucks did not suffer financially, the company’s reputation was negatively impacted. Based on the public messages on Twitter, much of the sentiment stemmed from a lack of congruency between the organization’s brand and the social cause supported. For example, one tweet stated, “I don’t go to a mechanic for financial advice and I don’t take advice on race from my coffee. Sorry Starbucks. #RaceTogether.”

Overall, this study highlighted some of the advantages and potential pitfalls of using employees in public-facing CSR initiatives. First, a company’s CSR strategy regarding sensitive issues must align with the organization’s brand at every level. Second, such efforts must involve clear communication with and input from internal stakeholders about CSR strategy. Employees must understand not only the value of the cause that is championed by the CSR initiative, but also the very basic details of how the campaign will work. Finally, the case underscores the critical role that public relations practitioners should play in CSR initiatives by acting as culturally sensitive boundary spanners between organizational management and stakeholders, both internal and external.

As internationally recognized companies become more vocal in their support of social causes, strategically thinking about how to respond and execute their reactions has become even more important. In April, Starbucks faced another racially charged situation when two African-American customers were arrested in one of its Philadelphia stores while waiting for a friend (Siegel & Horton, 2018). Starbucks’ initial reaction has been applauded—the company will close 8,000 stores on May 29 for racial-bias education, which will address employees’ own biases, in order to prevent future instances of discrimination. In this case, the company seems to have learned from its hasty Race Together campaign by including its employees in the strategy for addressing this public relations debacle.

The full paper can be found here.

By Alan Abitbol, Ph.D., University of Dayton;  Nicole Lee, Ph.D., North Carolina State University; Trent Seltzer, Ph.D., Texas Tech University and Sun Young Lee, Ph.D., University of Maryland.


Candea, B. (2015, March 18). Starbucks CEO defends ‘Race Together’ campaign on race relations. ABC News. Retrieved from

Oster, E. (2018, January 12). Majority of consumers want brands to take a stand on social and political isues, according to new study. AdWeek. Retrieved from:

Siegel, R., & Horton, A. (2018, April 17). Starbucks to close 8,000 stores for racial-bias education on May 29 after arrest of two black men. Washington Post. Retrieved from:

Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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