Revolutionary Measures

Why we don’t want discussion with our morning coffee

When you think of Starbucks, the first thing that comes to mind is not discussions about race. So the company’s latest US campaign, called Race Together, which seeks to start discussions between baristas and customers feels misplaced.

The second location of Starbucks in Seattle wa...

Firstly, let me say I don’t doubt that it is motivated by the right reasons, rather than a desire to differentiate or for marketing purposes. It follows extensive staff open meetings where partners (staff) have discussed the whole situation of race in the USA after high-profile cases involving the police and black citizens in New York and Ferguson, Missouri, amongst other places. And in many ways it goes back to the original purpose of coffee houses as venues for, often raucous, debate and discussion.

However as the overwhelmingly negative feedback on social media confirms, a 21st century chain coffee shop is not the place to have a measured discussion on a topic as sensitive and nuanced as race. As one tweet put it, “I don’t have time to explain 400 years of oppression to you & still make my train.” I’d agree – as someone that absolutely refuses to give my name when ordering a coffee, being forced into talking about a difficult subject, no matter how important, with someone I don’t know is not my cup of tea. I’d say there are four reasons it feels like the wrong place for this type of communication:

1          Fit with purpose
People go into a coffee shop to get a drink, and while they may have an unprompted chat with a barista, it is more likely to be about sports or the weather than race. They aren’t necessarily in a mood to talk to anyone until they’ve had their first coffee of the day, and if they are would prefer to choose the subject themselves. And how can you have a long discussion about a complex subject in the couple of minutes it takes for your coffee to be ready?

2          Unbalanced relationship
There is also a monetary transaction involved – it doesn’t feel like an equal conversation when one person is a customer and is paying. A discussion that could be had on an equal footing outside Starbucks most definitely can’t be seen the same way within the coffee shop.

3          Training and knowledge
Baristas at Starbucks haven’t received any special training in debating, and are of course still expected to carry on doing their jobs while engaging customers in discussion. Notwithstanding the potential impact on the coffee they are making, the risk is that they are out-argued by customers on specific points, adding to the issue, rather than helping solve it.

4          Risk to reputation
As a communications professional I’d also look at the risk to Starbucks’ reputation. It is easy to be very British about Race Together and just write it off as patronising, ignoring the genuine American issue behind it, and the more open US culture of discussing your life with complete strangers. But you have to look at the slew of negative tweets and articles to see that many Americans were not impressed. Additionally, given the global nature of the brand, a campaign in the US has an impact across the world, affecting the attitudes of coffee drinkers in other countries.

Most of all it reminds me of a Monty Python sketch, where Michael Palin pays John Cleese to have an argument. It deteriorates rapidly into just contradiction and is ended by a combination of the police and some wooden mallets. I’m not suggesting that the same approach is necessary in Starbucks’ case, but it needs to focus its efforts differently if it wants to get its message across and a proper discussion started.

March 25, 2015 Posted by | Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Pick up the phone!

Telephone

Everyone in business today has a plethora of communication channels to choose from, split between analogue (face to face, phone) and digital (email, social media, text, web). But is it a good thing?

As a member of Generation X (roughly defined as born between the mid 1960s and early 1980s) when I started work in public relations the only ‘digital’ communication was the letter (and extreme cases of urgency the fax). So analogue channels were pretty much the sole way of interacting with colleagues, talking to clients and pitching to the press. That meant that you had to develop verbal communication strengths such as being able to respond quickly to questions, give succinct answers and carry a conversation.

And PR was typical of all professions at the time – we were forced to speak to people (even if it was scary) and consequently got reasonably good at it.

But this has changed with the entry into the workplace of Generation Y. Weaned on new technology, these digital natives never had to learn to use email, social media or text as new channels – as far as they are concerned they’ve always been there. Lots of people I know comment on how much quieter today’s offices are as people are simply not on the telephone.

Which brings me to my issue. At the risk of sounding old, Generation Y need to start picking up the phone rather than hiding behind email and social media. It is very easy to craft a wonderful email, hit send and believe the job is done. Research quoted in Fresh Business Thinking found that 1 in 20 18-24 year olds is terrified of using the phone in work – and I reckon that’s a gross underestimate. The survey also found that 40% of 18-24 year olds were made nervous by telephone communication, against 28% of the total workforce.

We’ve all ducked making that call and sent an email instead (whatever generation we are), but here’s three reasons I think it doesn’t always get results:

1              Lost in transit
Most people get hundreds of emails every day and with the best will in the world it is easy to overlook one out of the many, whether deliberately or not. So the end result is that you don’t get a response and either have to re-send the email or try another channel.

2              Lost in translation
Even if everyone in the email conversation speaks the same language the chance of misinterpretation is high. Something that you can explain verbally can appear rude or just unclear, giving the wrong impression or leading to being ignored.

3              Lost in the gaps
With a phone call, or face to face, you need to think on your feet and try and build a rapport. You can change your tone, explain things and actually persuade someone by listening to what they are saying and responding accordingly. You simply can’t do that on email. While someone might come back with a question they are more likely to just hit delete and move to the next email.

I’m not Luddite enough to suggest going back to the days of telephone only communication, but people need to understand that there are advantages and drawbacks to every channel and pick the right one for each particular task. That might be email, social media or text – but it is vital that today’s workforce doesn’t neglect the telephone or we’ll end up as a nation of business mutes rather than engaging communicators.

October 30, 2013 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment