Why Starbucks CEO Johnson Responded To Racism Charges With An Apology

starbucksStarbucks CEO Kevin Johnson is preaching Abraham Lincoln’s epiphany, “With public sentiment, nothing can fail: without it nothing can succeed. Public sentiment is everything”, as he veers his company away from the mass hysteria over the arrest of two black men at one of his Philadelphia locations.

Most people believe there are two sides to every story. But for a consumer brand of Starbucks stature, there is only the side of public sentiment. It may seem to some that Johnson’s mea culpa act is contrived or too earnest. But he knows something they don’t. The results of even heartfelt attempts to defend company behavior in the face of a social media revolt will result in even greater devastation to reputation, employees and shareholders. The ability to use one man’s shame to inspire another man’s fame is the mantra of this era. Just ask United Airlines, Equifax or Uber.

“companies like Starbucks must retrain employees to deal with behaviors that were unacceptable five years ago, but today are tolerated.”

The fickleness of the consumer is such that a dent can become a leak in social media which turns into a flood — away from the franchise it took decades to build. The charge of racial profiling, whether merited or not, is so toxic, spreads so rapidly with huge unintended consequences, the only antidote is prevention. But if it’s too late, contrition holds the most promise. We may hate the company but we love a penitent.

Battalions in war torn regions have had to learn counterinsurgency techniques, which teach the art of negotiation over authoritarianism. Now, companies like Starbucks must retrain employees to deal with behaviors that were unacceptable five years ago, but today are tolerated.

The world changed, and there are no time outs or instant replays for corporate reputation. The imbroglio in Philadelphia is a lesson that for the hearts of consumers, winning starts in the short run, and you do whatever you have to do.

Jeff Cunningham is Chief Executive magazine's editor-at-large and a professor of leadership at Arizona State University/Thunderbird School of Global Management, where he has also endowed the Cunningham Global Fellowship for next-generation leaders. He also is the founder of Thunderbird Opinions poll of business trends. He was previously publisher of Forbes Magazine and CEO of Zip2 (founded by Elon Musk). Watch his YouTube interviews at Iconic Voices and connect on Twitter @CunninghamJeff and LinkedIn.