Starbucks shuts down, reaps PR windfall

Stunt or not, Starbucks’ “coffee training” offers key PR lessons.

Stunt or not, Starbucks’ “coffee training” offers key PR lessons

It was either one of the year’s bravest business moves, or one of the year’s biggest PR stunts—or both. When Starbucks shut down all 7,100 of its U.S. locations in late February for three and a half hours to train staff, the Seattle-based coffee chain reaped a windfall of media coverage.

Stunt or no stunt, the fact is that Starbucks, a company that’s been struggling to regain its footing following slipping sales and the firing of its CEO, scored big not only in terms of coverage, but in terms of the closure’s overriding message. Howard Schultz, the founder of Starbucks and newly installed CEO, made it clear that the closure was all about making better coffee.

“The very heart of the Starbucks Experience is the connection our baristas have with our customers through a shared passion of exceptional coffee,” said Schultz in a Starbucks press release the evening of the closures. “Tonight is about celebrating who we are and re-energizing our focus on and commitment to those things that have made us the world’s leading roaster and retailer of specialty coffee.”

In the coverage blitz that followed—complete with images of dismayed coffee drinkers clustered outside their local shuttered Starbucks—the media picked up on details of the barista training sessions, including such tidbits as the perfect color for each espresso shot. In some stories, such as the one fromThe New York Times, reporters were allowed to peek in on the training and interview staffers who related what they learned during “coffee school.”

Stacey Krum, Starbucks’ company spokeswoman, explains that the event generated so much buzz because at its heart, it wasn’t media-driven.

“It was developed for reasons other than communications,” Krum explains, which meant that the media wouldn’t see the closures as a gimmick. “There had to be substance. For us to give access to reporters, there had to be quality training.” Only a small group of reporters who regularly cover Starbucks got access to the actual training sessions, creating a sense of exclusivity around the event.

A message in every story

Since nearly every media story made some mention of the training session, along with Starbucks’ renewed commitment to quality coffee, the closure was a communications home run. While Starbucks doesn’t call its training day a stunt, it certainly raises questions about the right way to go about staging an event that the media simply can’t ignore—and that delivers a solid message.

Newsworthiness: When an event is simply a stunt, with no other goal other than to say, “Hey, look at me!” it may get lots of stand-alone photo coverage, but it won’t convey any deep messages about your organization. (Except that you spent a lot of money.)

“What made this story interesting is that it was a gutsy business decision on Starbucks’ part,” says Steve Quigley, an associate professor of PR at Boston University. “They showed a hint of vulnerability—something that companies don’t do much of anymore. What more could the press ask for?” By doing something that fit into the overall Starbucks story—that is, the company’s comeback program—Starbucks gave the media more that just a one-line caption, Quigley explains.

“The closures were driven by the CEO,” explains Starbucks’ Krum. “This was about how to make a big, bold move that would get attention,” but would also take a big step toward maintaining the quality of the product, she adds.

Relevance: Starbucks also hit a home run by tapping into a collective experience—also a big hit with the media, says Diane Brandon, VP of communications and research for the Arlington (Texas) Convention & Visitors Bureau and a skilled “stuntwoman” herself.

“It needs to be a story that can be repeated on several news sources and hit the interest of the general public,” Brandon explains. “If an obscure plumbing supply chain had tried the same stunt, no one would’ve cared. Starbucks is so much in the general populace now, everyone cares.” In other words, the media coverage played into everyone’s favorite freak-out: What if I can’t get my dose of caffeine?

Starbucks’ Krum agrees that the wide audience ensured a high level of relevance for the media: “We’re a part of many people’s daily lives.”

A newsworthy stunt also needs to be so unusual or new that the media and the public can’t look away. “You need to make sure that what you’re doing is so outrageous that it can’t be resisted,” says Jim Yeager, president of breakwhitelight, a PR firm in Oak Park, Calif., and a veteran creator of PR stunts for Universal and Warner Brothers.

Brand messages: As with newsworthiness, a stunt resonates when it actually says something about your organization, product or issue. “There has to be a strategic objective, something you want to instill in the minds of the public,” says Mike Collins, owner of Mike Collins PR in Washington, D.C.

When Collins was the press secretary for the Republican National Committee in the 1990s, he orchestrated a stunt to lampoon then-Vice President Al Gore’s claims that he had grown up on a tobacco farm, when he’d actually grown up in a condo on D.C.’s Embassy Row.

“We rented a mule team, hired an actor, dressed him like he was going on Hee-Haw, and staged a media tour of Al Gore’s childhood ‘farm,'” explains Collins. “Our little stunt garnered more cameras than the O.J. trial, and led two out of three national newscasts.” It was funny and a great visual, sure, but Collins says it also served the RNC’s goal of pointing out supposed inconsistencies in Gore’s public statements.

Michael Schiferl, senior VP/ director of media relations for Weber Shandwick, agrees a stunt needs some gravitas. “There are times when you can be frivolous, but you still have to communicate those messages,” he explains. For Weber Shandwick client Allstate, Schiferl helmed a campaign around the insurer’s annual Best Driver’s Report, listing which cities have the safest drivers.

“To reward those drivers, we created a stunt and visual of giving away free gas to the winning city, complete with a tanker truck of gas parked at a local gas station and a miles-long line of cars,” Schiferl says. A fun stunt—but it also reinforced Allstate’s messages about the benefits of safe driving.

National and local impact: The best media stunts have hooks for both the national and local media. “Even if it’s a national story, figure out a way to make it local and give local media ownership,” suggests Dan Cohen, principal of Full Court Press Communications in Oakland, Calif., and a former PR pro for General Mills, where he worked on the launch of Betty Crocker’s new “face.” Says Cohen, “The Starbucks story worked because TV stations everywhere only had to go down the block to interview folks who were locked out.”

Great images: “The most successful stunts are visual and have a great TV element,” says Cathy Yingling, managing director of Y&L PR in Indianapolis. While the Starbucks closures weren’t as visual as some events, they did offer the media the chance to get pictures and video of “Closed” signs in Starbucks windows.

No matter how well executed the event, it means little going forward if it doesn’t advance PR messages. “A stunt has to deliver on what it promised,” says Jim Yeager. That means the media will be circling Starbucks in the coming months to see if that double mocha latte really does taste better.

Dunkin’ Donuts responds to Starbucks

The next best thing to staging and promoting your own attention-getting event? Piggyback onto to someone else’s. The day before Starbucks closed for training nationwide—and the same day Starbucks issued its media alert about the closure—Dunkin’ Donuts responded with its own promo.

“Dunkin’ Donuts wants to ensure that no coffee lover is denied a delicious espresso-based beverage,” read the company’s press release,, which offered specially priced 99-cent lattes or cappuccinos during the afternoon and evening of the Starbucks shutdown.

The press release didn’t mention the Starbucks closure directly, but everyone got the point. And there was a clever dig at Starbucks in the quote from Will Kussell, chief brand officer for the company, who said Dunkin’ Donuts makes “it possible for customers to enjoy authentic lattes without long waits, high prices and confusing sizes.”

In media interviews, Dunkin’ Donuts spokespeople coyly denied that their 99-cent drinks were a slap at Starbucks, claiming the discounted coffees were handed out to celebrate the company’s top spot in a recent customer loyalty survey.

Regardless, Dunkin’ Donuts won nearly as much coverage at Starbucks did, with the media pitting the two companies against each other in a sort of coffee war. That’s a pretty good ROI for its efforts, considering DD didn’t have to lose out on any revenue caused by a closure.

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