Four important PR lessons CEOs can learn from the Starbucks arrests

Earlier tonight, Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson went on CNN to publicly apologize for last week’s arrests of two black men at a Philadelphia Starbucks. Johnson seemed an emotional wreck as Don Lemon pointed out that the CEO of the world’s largest coffee chain sounded personally affected by the incident.

Juxtapose that to the reaction from beer-maker Heineken after an ad that was called out by many, including Chance the Rapper, as overtly racist. In a statement to The Independent, a Heineken spokesperson said,

“For decades, Heineken has developed diverse marketing that shows there’s more that unites us than divides us. While we feel the ad is referencing our Heineken Light beer, we missed the mark, are taking the feedback to heart and will use this to influence future campaigns.”

While the sincerity of each apology can be debated, there are four important lessons in the strategy behind Starbuck’s reaction.

1) React immediately and with force

Within hours that the news of the arrests went viral, the Starbucks CEO had drafted an apology letter and swift action had been taken. But Johnson took it a step further and aired a video apology saying, “These two gentlemen did not deserve what happened and we are accountable. I am accountable.”

2) Apologize Proactively and Decisively

That leads me to lesson number two. Heineken’s apology fell short. Instead of an “I’m sorry” the company responded with “we missed the mark.” In fact, it was their apology that seemed to miss the mark as The Onion so accurately satirized. Starbucks not only apologized in writing and on video, but made the rounds on TV news shows to expound on that apology.

3) Empathize

One of the first orders of business for Johnson was to meet with the two men who were arrested and learn about their experience. His goal? To ask the men what measures Starbucks could implement to prevent similar incidents in the future. Johnson understood that this wasn’t about one incident, but about a systemic issue that affects a huge and growing demographic of his customers.

4) Put your money where your mouth is

Finally, Johnson’s meeting with those two men and local Philadelphia leaders led to action. Earlier today, Starbucks announced it will close 8,000 stores on May 29 for a whole afternoon for racial bias training with its employees. In all, 175,000 workers will receive a training curriculum that is being put together by former Attorney General Eric Holder and leaders from the NAACP and the Anti-Defamation League.

When it comes down it, reactions to incidents like these are about more than just doing the right thing. Calls for boycotts were already underway and Starbucks seems to understand the purchasing power of minorities in the U.S. In the coming days, CEOs should be taking note on the outcome of Starbucks’ decisions and see if this is a pattern to emulate—because it’s not about if there will be another incident, but when.