July 26, 2016
Last year when Starbucks announced its #RaceTogether initiative, the backlash was quick and relentless. The idea of having authentic conversations about race relations between Starbucks baristas and customers appeared to be contrived, a publicity stunt and an elitist, narrow-minded, savior-complex way of approaching a serious and complicated issue that requires the voices of people who aren’t spending $4 on a latte each day. The initiative was considered by most to be a failure and as public relations experts rehashed what went wrong, it was a clear that no matter how well intentioned the Starbucks initiative, there remained a disconnect in delivery, execution and tone.
So how do we talk about serious issues in this coffee-to-go, Twitter-feed world? Or should we even try? Is it possible to talk about race, class, gender and sexual orientation in a real way on a Facebook timeline or in a podcast? How do you balance speed with substance?
It isn’t easy but it is doable — look at the impact of #BlackLivesMatter, #YesAllWomen, #WhyIStayed and #IceBucketChallenge. One important thing to note is that all of these hashtags were started by people already having these discussions, they were authorities both in terms of study and by personal experience. Those who chime in using the same hashtag are adding to the discussion, not taking charge of it.
The importance of WHO is talking is just as important as what is being talked about. If you don’t have someone in your organization who is a respected, experienced leader in regards to the issue you want to broach, partner with an organization that does.
Another important factor in creating safe-spaces for social media dialogs is to understand that it is just a starting point. If you choose to use social media for a serious discussion, provide ways for your community to learn more about the issue and to talk face to face and in longform. Have a plan in place before your very first tweet for who is going to moderate the conversation, how to diffuse explosive exchanges and when/where you will take the conversation offline with community forums, guest speakers or even documentary viewings.
Social media conversations about controversial issues can create awareness, bring in new voices and create dialog. It can be used to organize and to share information. It should never be used in place of face-to-face dialog paired with action but in today’s social media-connected world, it should never be ignored either.
Going back to Starbucks and #RaceTogether… there is no question that the executives at Starbucks thought they were doing something for the better when they took out a full page ad in The New York Times to announce the campaign. But, they didn’t think long term and they didn’t think about how to join the conversation rather than take over As part of a thoughtful campaign, with the right partners and in conjunction with broader forums and long-form discussions, #RaceTogether might have become a trending topic for all the right reasons.