Like it or not, when someone’s represented your company publicly for many years that association sticks around after they retire. That’s a lesson Starbucks is learning the hard way after former CEO and chairman Howard Schultz announced that he was considering a 2020 presidential run.
Anticipating questions from customers – both legitimate and staged for social media I’d assume – Starbucks circulated some talking points for baristas to use when pinned down on the topic.
The coffee chain’s “Barista Need-To-Know” update for the week of Jan. 21-27 included instructions on how to “diffuse [sic] the situation” should anyone “share aggressive political opinions,” as well as what to do if someone asks about Schultz’s “political intentions.”
From the weekly update (emphasis not ours):
“… partners [i.e., employees] may be asked questions by customers or hear media speculation about Howard’s potential political intentions. We encourage you all to take a moment to review the talking points below with your partners.
If a customer asks if we are selling Howard’s book at Starbucks:
No, the books are available at bookstores and online.
If a customer attempts to investigate, or share aggressive political opinions, attempt to diffuse the situation by sharing:
We respect everyone’s opinion. Our goal is simply to create a warm and welcoming space where we can all gather, as a community, over great coffee.
If asked about Howard’s political intentions:
Howard’s future plans are up to him.
So, is this plan smart, or is it overly risky? On the pro side, it’s always good to have key messages consistent across your organization. Providing approved messaging can also reduce the likelihood of spokespeople saying something you’d rather they not or winding up in confrontation. As with many major chains Starbucks employee policies frown on discussing politics on the working floor and these messages are geared towards helping them avoid that minefield.
Here’s the problem – front line Starbucks employees are not trained spokespeople. While most folks can parrot a response from a page, that’s hardly indication they’re ready to deliver messaging in the face of controversy. Many Starbucks employee’s responses are bound to come off as less-than credible, either due to discomfort delivering the messaging or because they don’t believe in/care about the issue. Even worse, what happens when answering a couple of intro questions leads to an upset customer really digging in? When the conversation has gone well beyond these three one-liners is your average barista prepared to either continue on-message or end the talk gracefully? The answer is no. They don’t have the training, they don’t have the experience, and it’s somewhere between wishful and dangerous thinking to believe baristas are ready to stave off a political discussion in the middle of trying to manage their daily workload.
Train every store manager for public speaking and sure, this set of messages would be great. However, asking untrained, unprepared front-line employees to do anything except defer questions about PR issues to the appropriate person is a risk I wouldn’t want to take.