Starbucks Agrees to Pay Restitution

Starbucks has an up and down relationship with the media and consumers on social media. From positive interactions to overstepping baristas to Christmas cups, the brand seems to find a way into the headlines, good or bad, with some frequency. Occasionally, though, the news is more serious than a red cup or a hapless employee. This is one of those crisis cases.

Various media reports announced recently that Starbucks Corp has agreed to “pay restitution and accept greater oversight” as part of a settlement in response to allegations that the company “illegally required New York City employees to find substitutes when they needed to use sick leave.”

Starbucks has since changed its sick leave policy, but that doesn’t mean the positioning messages have stopped or that the company should just ignore what’s being published or broadcast subsequent to the settlement. A sampling of media reporting on this topic reveals that the company had to pay at least $176,000 in restitution to employees and to post “educational posters” about the new policy in all NYC stores. The company has six months to prove to regulators that it is in compliance in all 8,000 NYC locations.

As of December 2019, Starbucks is not talking to the media about this issue, other than to say they will comply with the terms of the settlement, so there’s very little messaging coming from their side. There’s merit to that position. The company gains nothing by extending this story into another news cycle. They had a policy. It’s been changed. The end. From their perspective, what else needs to be said? Anything more, and you simply risk drawing more attention to an issue most consumers aren’t paying any attention to. No up-side there, so terse acknowledgement with a forward focus is the right move.

That could change, though. In the event that an advocacy group or an influencer grabs hold of this issue and pushes a negative narrative of Starbucks as “unfair” or “insensitive” to employees, the company may need to shift its stance in response. That calls for proactive consumer PR.

Starbucks should not assume this issue will just fade away, though it does seem likely. The brand needs to be prepared for the issue to resurface, and to be ready for a position where they’re not in control of the narrative being pushed. The goal, then, is two-fold. First, to offer a counter-narrative, and second, to try to gain some control of the prevailing message in the marketplace. The purpose of this planning is not to go on the offensive, but to be immediately prepared to respond, so precious time isn’t lost figuring out how to answer a negative message in real time.

Ronn Torossian

Ronn Torossian is the founder and CEO of 5WPR and one of the most well-respected Public Relations professionals in the United States. Ronn is the author of "For Immediate Release: Shape Minds, Build Brands, and Deliver Results with Game-Changing Public Relations."

View more posts from this author