“Race Together” mixes two very different organizations: do we care?

“Race Together,” an initiative that Starbucks and USA Today have joined forces to create, has received mixed reactions in the past week.

Baristas behind the counters of Starbucks shops were encouraged to start conversations about race with consumers while writing #RaceTogether on the cups of drinks they sell. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz says conversations are the start of understanding others life experiences and ideas — sparking change through empathy to eventually live together as one.

USA Today produced a special section in partnership with the coffee chain with tons of content, mostly videos, from different perspectives on facing racial tension and racial inequality in America. There are multiple interviews of Starbucks “partners” on the issues as well.

As mentioned before, many have criticized the implementation of the campaign on the Starbucks side. The baristas had no formal training on how to start conversations and customers were annoyed that they were faced with a heavy and complex conversation while simply trying to get in, get coffee and get out.

Other criticisms went further, questioning the genuineness of the effort by the huge, sometimes “purpose-driven” corporation, saying the initiative is more about seeming culturally relevant and competing with other high-end coffee shops than making a real impact. Tweets got so negative that Corey duBrowa, VP for global communications, deleted his Twitter account on Monday. Social media critics called out the company for the top executives being predominantly white while many lower-level employees are members of minorities.

Starbucks ended the writing on the cups today, but said it was not due to the criticism they’ve received. Other phases of the initiative, including the hiring of 10,000 “opportunity youth” in the next 3 years and the production of three more special sections with USA Today.

Although there are definite flaws in the execution of the initiative by both entities, I applaud their effort. I would rather my companies at least be trying to evoke positive change than doing nothing.

However, part of me feels uneasy about the partnership between the two. At the top of the Race Together online edition,  the “Starbucks” logo is placed beside the newspaper’s before links to different articles and videos.

As journalists struggle to figure out how to make money in an increasingly complex media landscape, when does native advertising cross a line? I understand that the content isn’t saying “Starbucks coffee is the best, buy Starbucks coffee,” without hinting that it is, in fact, sponsored by Starbucks. But it does associate the USA Today brand with Starbucks’ goals.

Should we be worried about the objectivity of the content when a separate corporation’s interests are involved — one that claims to be seeking positive change, but is still not held to the same standards or ethics as a news outlet?

I genuinely encourage a conversation to come out of this blog post. (If this makes it to the rebelmouse site, please, Professor Robinson, mention this in the description.) I invite comments or separate blog posts or a discussion in class because I am genuinely interested in thoughts from other future journalists and communicators.

As we move forward I think this conversation is an important one to have. Where do we stand and do we care about corporations sponsoring content?


One thought on ““Race Together” mixes two very different organizations: do we care?

  1. Is there any prominent notice that the section is advertising or does it appear to be produced by the news department?

    If it is the latter, it’s a no-brainer that the paper has crossed the line. When readers wonder if you’re in league with Starbucks, they wonder if it is possible for you to cover the coffee industry — financially, socially & with regard to health — fairly.


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