How to keep your public affairs messages from going awry

Even giants like Starbucks run into trouble with well-meaning public affairs initiatives. Make sure you don't do the same.

Even giants like Starbucks run into trouble with well-meaning public affairs initiatives. Make sure you don’t do the same.

I was more than surprised, when I dragged my under-caffeinated body into Starbucks last month to receive my venti nonfat misto in a cup that had “#RaceTogether” written on it, instead of my name. After the caffeine hit my system, I realized that this was part of Starbucks’ marketing campaign to bring discussions about race into the marketplace. (Personally, I hold Starbucks in high regard as my stylish caffeine delivery system, my office away from home, and as a company that cares about its employees, fair trade coffee, and its community). 


Starbucks’ ill-conceived Race Together campaign folded quickly and rightfully so. Starbucks is in the coffee business. Caffeine-deprived consumers stand in line for their fix. Baristas are there to deliver the caffeine as quickly as possible. I can’t imagine engaging my barista or the people in line in conversation about race. What was Starbucks thinking?


Starbucks could have made a major impact by sponsoring forums, dialogues, workshops, and meetings about race–dialogue that’s much needed. They could have turned their stores into venues for small discussions, and provided the food and drink for participants. In that forum, as sponsor, Starbucks would be a catalyst. But in the coffee line, Starbucks should have stuck to message: it’s coffees, teas, baked goods, personal service and the quality that separates them from their competition.


Starbucks isn’t the only company that has had well-intended messages go off track. A nearby symphony orchestra joined forces with the local food bank as part of the national League of American Orchestras initiative called “Orchestras Feeding America.” The campaign encouraged symphony ticket holders to bring non-perishable goods to the concert hall for pick up and distribution by the food bank. The symphony also offered a ticket discount for those people bringing food to the hall.


On paper, it’s a wonderful concept and partnership in the community. The symphony sent out a press release, posted a video to their YouTube channel, created a presence in social media, and prominently listed the program in their print ads. Alas, the print ad visibility was misguided. The organization has a limited advertising budget and their ads are small. The promotion took up too much real estate in their ads, and they no longer had room to highlight the content of their programs, which is what prompts people to buy tickets. No one buys a ticket to a classical music concert so they can get a discount by bringing a can of beans. They lost an opportunity to bring people into their hall to hear classical music, when their target audience for the food drive should have been people who already had their tickets, such as their subscribers and donors.


Every business owner must consider “the greater good,” but it’s good business to do it in a way that doesn’t stifle your brand as you go off-message.


1. Determine your cause carefully. Religious and political campaign issues can be controversial, and you do not want to offend your customer base. Who will your partners be? Are they highly regarded in the community? Do they have a track record of partnering and actively participating in a partnership, or are they just going to stand there with their hands out? 


2. Decide beforehand if the partnership will have the visibility for your company that will justify the participation. Will the community perceive your participation as a good thing? If there’s no possible visibility for you, is your potential partner the right one, or is there another one that can provide more? If there’s a match, and potential for a partnership, define the roles each business will take. 


3. Evaluate how you can partner with an organization without depleting your marketing budget or advertising space that you need to move your product or service. Sending a press release online or posting to social media is free, compared to using purchased advertising space. Offering goods and services can be preferable to cash.


Recently, we saw many businesses, from corporate giants to small family companies, outraged over Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which essentially gave business the right to deny services to people whose lifestyle didn’t mix with their religious beliefs. I thought how my clients and I might have expressed our outrage, had similar legislation passed in my home state. I saw a small Indiana bakery’s ad for Easter baked goods. Their ad generally stated “Here to serve you Monday through Saturday 9AM-6PM.” It has been slightly edited to read “We serve everyone M-Sa 9AM-6PM” Powerful message inserted into advertising without taking space from a display of holiday foods. They kept to their message.


Mark G. Auerbach is principal at Mark G. Auerbach Public Relations, a Springfield, MA, based marketing, public relations, development and events consultancy. You can find more information about Mark at Facebook and LinkedIn.


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