Race Relations with That Soy Latte

Case Study Race Relations with That Soy Latte?

In the old days, before CEOs made 330 times more than the average worker, the men (and they were all mostly “men”) who ran America’s biggest corporations were eager to communicate to the public, by standing up for what they stood for. CEOs like Chase’s David Rockefeller, General Electric’s Jack Welch, Citicorp’s Walter Wriston, and Dupont’s Irving Shapiro would regularly give speeches, testify before Congress, and meet with the media to forward their own and their corporations’ viewpoints.

Not so much anymore.

Today’s CEOs, with precious few exceptions, are timid, more inclined to be not seen and not heard, while they rake in their excessive bounty. One glowing exception, however, is Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks.

Mr. Schultz is a concerned, fearless, plain-speaking Brooklyn native, who cares about his country and isn’t afraid to use his corporate muscle to communicate his views. Sometimes, it gets him and his company into the kind of hot water that isn’t compatible with brewing.

Drop Your Weapons

In 2013, with America reeling in the wake of horrific gun violence in movie theaters, ship yards and elementary schools, Howard Schultz wrote an “Open Letter” to gun owners and placed it in The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and other major newspapers. It said in part:

Dear Fellow Americans,

Few topics in America generate a more polarized and emotional debate than guns. In recent months, Starbucks stores and our partners (employees) who work in our stores have been thrust unwillingly into the middle of this debate. That’s why I am writing today with a respectful request that customers no longer bring firearms into our stores or outdoor seating areas.

From the beginning, our vision at Starbucks has been to create a “third place” between home and work where people can come together to enjoy the peace and pleasure of coffee and community. Our values have always centered on building community rather than dividing people, and our stores exist to give every customer a safe and comfortable respite from the concerns of daily life.

The CEO explained that while in the past, Starbucks allowed patrons to pack heat in “open carry” states that allowed firearms to be concealed, the company was henceforth changing its policy. Wrote CEO Schultz:

We are respectfully requesting that customers no longer bring firearms into our stores or outdoor seating areas—even in states where “open carry” is permitted—unless they are authorized law enforcement personnel.

Predictably, Starbucks was immediately excoriated by gun enthusiasts, as the company’s Facebook page lit up with sentiments like “You are weak” and “I won’t shop in your stores now” and “My ability to protect myself is more important than my ­caffeine intake.”

Schultz, himself, became a target of pro-gun advocates, who considered Starbucks a symbol of liberal, left-leaning Seattle. Despite the criticism, the Starbucks CEO stuck to his, well, guns.

Tell Me about Your Race

Two years later, the outspoken Starbucks CEO was at it again, this time joining the nation’s ongoing discussion of race relations.

In the spring of 2015, after racially charged skirmishes with police erupted in several American cities, CEO Schultz decided that Starbucks should again take the public opinion lead. So the company announced its “Race Together” program, wherein 50,000 busy Starbucks baristas in its 20,000 stores would initiate discussions about race with customers, as they sipped on their caffe macchiatos (Figure 3-5).

Almost immediately, the public pushback against the well-meaning program made the earlier no-gun initiative look like a walk in the park. Critics questioned how coffee servers would be willing, able and competent enough to engage customers in conversation about race, and if customers would tolerate such an intrusion into their simple daily act of buying coffee. Journalists flocked to Starbucks locations to talk to baristas about race, while patrons in line fumed. Twitter, for one social medium, erupted accordingly:

  • Really mad at this Starbucks employee who wrote #RaceTogether on my croissant.
  • Starbucks #RaceTogether is actually useful—as a demonstration of what’s wrong with the way US employers treat their workers.
  • #RaceTogether is trending nationwide on Twitter tonight, not really for the reasons @Starbucks wanted.

Things got so bad that a few days into the campaign, Starbucks global communications director announced he was ­deleting his Twitter account because, “I felt personally attacked in a cascade of negativity.” Oofa!

And so, a week after Starbucks had announced its campaign to confront the race issue, a sadder-but-wiser CEO Schultz ­announced that the initiative would be ending. As the CEO put it in a staff memo:

“While there has been criticism of the initiative—and I know this hasn’t been easy for any of you—let me assure you that we didn’t expect universal praise.”

What Starbucks and its determined CEO got, instead, was a reminder that influencing public opinion is no easy task.*

Figure 3-5 Wrong race?

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz had high hopes for the company’s ill-fated “Race Together” campaign in 2015.



  1. What would you have counseled CEO Schultz on his idea to keep Starbucks locations free of guns?
  2. What about your counsel relative to his idea to start conversations among baristas and patrons on the subject of race?
  3. Is it a good idea for companies to communicate publicly about their viewpoints? If so, should there be any public relations restrictions on the issues companies take on?
  4. What other public relations options did Schultz have in his quest to bring Starbucks into the race issue?


Last Updated on December 13, 2020 by EssayPro