As a college professor, one of my responsibilities is to push my students out of their comfort zones and get them talking about issues they may otherwise choose not to discuss in class. For me, this is an important part of my job because I am a strong believer in the fact that everyone should have a point of view regardless of what it is. I want to encourage my students to not only have their own opinion, but also be comfortable enough to share it even when it may not be in line with the general consensus. My staff at PAN knows how I feel about this issue; they know that I welcome their varied points of view, regardless of how provocative they might be.
During the discussion portions of class, I like to bring up current events that are a bit controversial to not only get my students talking, but to also teach them the importance of respecting those opinions that might be different from their own. I know that if they end up joining a PR firm like PAN, they’ll need to be able to defend their point of view – and that starts with having one!!
Last class, we talked about Starbucks’ “Race Together” campaign, which the Company abruptly ended due to the severe backlash it received. Following the terrible events that happened in Ferguson, Mo., Florida and New York City, Starbucks decided to join the growing conversation, encouraging, but not requiring, its baristas to write the words "Race Together" on cups, in an effort to raise awareness around the issues of race in the United States and perhaps even start talking about it. For those who follow Starbuck’s CEO Howard Schultz know all too well, he has never shied away from involving his company in controversial debates and using his brand as a catalyst for change. According to reports, the initiative stemmed from a forum in December at company headquarters in Seattle, where employees discussed racial tensions in the United States.
Image via Starbucks Newsroom: http://news.starbucks.com/news/what-race-together-means-for-starbucks-partners-and-customers
As I mentioned in a previous post, as a PR professional, you can prepare and plan all you want for a campaign to launch, but you can never fully anticipate how the general public will react. In the case of the “Race Together” campaign, it drew harsh criticism and strong backlash, so much so that the Company’s SVP of Communications had to delete his Twitter account, as it became inundated with questions surrounding race.
As I entered class on Tuesday, just days after the campaign had come to an end, I was curious to hear what my students would say about the issue. The story had been of keen interest to me, so I followed it closely and knew how the general public was reacting, but as my students are of the Millennial generation, I was intrigued to hear how they had interpreted the campaign.
Race and diversity are tricky subjects to discuss in general, so I knew going into class that my students would be hesitant to share their thoughts and points of views on the matter. Slowly but surely, my students started to open up and share their opinions. In an effort to keep the conversation going, as I always do, I waited to share my opinion.
Overall, my students did not support the campaign, for many reasons. For example, one student brought up the fact that it didn’t really seem to fit, the campaign, because from everything she’d read, Starbucks’ are predominately found in white, affluent neighborhoods, and are rarely located in rural, under-developed ones. A number of students agreed that in their opinion, they didn’t feel as though the Starbucks employees were well-equipped to have difficult conversations about race with customers. Another simply said that when he is rushing to class at 8 a.m., the last thing he wants to do is have a conversation about race with the woman handing him his coffee or the stranger next to him in line.
As I listened to my students discuss, I was struck by the fact that our opinions and thoughts about the campaign were different. While they felt it wasn’t really Starbucks’ place to thrust the conversation around race into the hands of its customers, I more looked at the campaign as an opportunity to raise awareness around the issue of race. After my students finished discussing, I weighed in offering my point of view. My students listened, respectfully, as I explained my feelings around the campaign and reasoning’s behind those feelings.
Although my thoughts about the campaign were not the same as my students, none of them argued with me nor gave me an abrupt goodbye as they left class. As I boarded my flight home to Boston, I did so with a feeling of accomplishment, knowing that although it may have been an uncomfortable conversation to have, we had done it and had done it respectfully.
This blog post is part of larger series, ‘Cuse Chronicles by a CEO, from PAN President & Founder, Philip A. Nardone, Jr., as he chronicles his experience teaching two capstones classes at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications.