Starbucks CEO and Public Engagement: “Wake Up!”
Friday, October 28th, 2011

Over the summer, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz began a crusade to end what he, and many others, are calling the political gridlock in Washington. In August, Schultz sent out an e-mail to all of his employees, as well as a number of business leaders, stating that he was finding himself “growing more and more frustrated at the lack of cooperation and irresponsibility among elected officials as they have put partisan agendas before the people’s agenda.” Weeks later, Schultz urged CEOs across the country to withold their political contributions until a “transparent, comprehensive, bipartisan debt-and-deficit package is reached that honestly, and fairly, sets America on a path to long-term financial health and security.” CEOs from many top companies, including those from AOL, Pepsi and Walt Disney, heeded his call and took the pledge. Following this, Schultz sought to broaden his call for action through public engagement.

On September 6, 2011, Schultz worked with the non-profit organization No Labels to conduct a “town hall meeting” in New York, where people could call in to share their perpective on what’s causing the “crisis of confidence” in America. Branded as a “Conversation with America,” Schultz sought outreach through online advertising, mass e-mailing, and by running ads in the New York Times and USA Today, urging “Americans to participate in the forum and insist politicians to end their hyper-partisan behaviour.” Schultz said he was inspired to hold the town hall meeting after receiving hundreds of e-mails and letters from citizens who are struggling in the current U.S. economy.

Now for some points on what went down during the town hall meeting:

Where was it held? The venue was Cooper Union, a prestigious private college in Manhattan. However, it was slightly repurposed to look like your local Starbucks, complete with eager-looking young people in the background, sipping on their Starbucks drinks and typing away on their Macbooks. The whole thing was streamed online.

Who was there? An impressive group of individuals hosted the meeting, including a senior political columnist for Newsweek and CNN contributor; the President of the Grady Health Foundation in Atlanta; a Professor of Management from the Harvard Business School; and the President of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

What happened? Over a 90-minute time period, the panel discussed the issues at hand and took questions from call-in viewers. However, the broader focus seemed to be on encouraging people to take the pledge to withhold campaign contributions.


So what should we make of this? From a process perspective, “A Conversation with America” does not represent the most robust public engagement initiative for a number of reasons. The hosts of the meeting were not unbiased and promoted a clear agenda, many of the questions that were asked were very similar and seemed to be a bit leading in nature, and there was corporate branding everywhere. However, I’m assuming that Mr. Schultz is placing more focus on the message rather than the process.

Political ideologies aside, I think this is an inspiring example of high-profile business leaders, particularly those from companies with popular consumer brands, taking a stand and using (some form of) public engagement to get citizens to “wake up”!

-Tristan Eclarin-

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