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Starbucks, in March 2012, came under fire after a woman in South Carolina collected 6,000 signatures on a Change.org online petition asking the company to stop using cochineal dye in its strawberry beverages. Although the customer was motivated by a desire to communicate broadly that the menu offerings weren’t vegan-friendly, her actions set off a chain reaction from Starbucks (including non-vegans) and public relations professionals. And though the issue of cochineal (pronounced “coach-in-EEL”) insects as a natural dye in food, cosmetics and paints only recently bubbled to the surface among the general public, it’s been a smoldering crisis for a number of years.
While not highly publicized within the mainstream media, the issue of cochineal in food and cosmetic products dates back to August 1998, when the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) petitioned the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to mandate proper labeling, or prohibit the ingredient’s use altogether. In January 2006, the FDA announced plans to revise its requirements for the use of the insect-based colorant. As conversations about cochineal heated up, several companies were called out as having particularly high stakes in the issue, with a wide variety of products – from yogurt to juice – containing the ingredient. However, in 2006 the key players in the controversy adopted defensive attitudes almost immediately, and provided little to no access to information for concerned consumers.
Clearly, this crisis was building for some time. Though Starbucks has been hailed for its speedy response and taking decisive action in the face of a potential PR crisis, could the coffee giant have been better prepared to handle the media firestorm – or avoid it altogether? I believe so – and you simply have to look to several best practices for PR and crisis communication to learn how Starbucks could have better prepared, protected itself and prevented (or greatly reduced) any negative media attention: