Starbucks came under fire in March 2012 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 PR 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 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 and prevented (or greatly reduced) any negative media attention:
Anticipation Is Key: It would have been in Starbucks’ best interest to monitor the issue when it initially appeared in the news, and select an alternative colorant to avoid playing any role in the controversy. That said, it’s possible the company, having used cochineal as a colorant for many years, feared risking consumer backlash if it admitted to including the insects in its products. In this digital age, however, with simple tools like Google Alerts at anyone’s fingertips, it’s hardly burdensome to monitor keywords, stories and other relevant news impacting your company and industry.
Assess the Crisis: Though the company didn’t properly anticipate the crisis, Starbucks was somewhat nimble in analyzing it, coming to a company-wide consensus and sharing its decision broadly. On March 14, a blog post on the site This Dish is Veg discussed Starbucks’ Strawberry and Crème Frappucinos, highlighting the insect-based dye. The blog post called for signatures to the aforementioned Change.org petition, and stories began breaking at the end of March highlighting vegans’ displeasure at the offending menu items. Given the size of the coffee behemoth, it’s safe to assume executives were prepared with several of the other key principles of crisis management, such as having an established crisis communications team and measuring the impact of communication once the company offered an explanation.
Identify and Train Your Spokesperson: As mentioned above, soon after the crisis emerged, Starbucks was prepared to respond. Cliff Burrows, Starbucks' U.S. president, first posted on the My Starbucks Idea blog about the cochineal extract, explaining what menu items include it and sharing that the company was looking into alternative natural ingredients to replace the base—on March 29. He then shared an update in an April 19 blog post with news that the company will be switching by the end of June from cochineal to a natural, tomato-based extract in its strawberry beverages, and also eliminating the insect colorant in various food items that had previously included cochineal. Given the fact that this crisis started online, was elevated through an online petition and became a hot topic on social media sites, it makes sense that the company would issue its statement in this same forum—and Burrows did so clearly, concisely and in a (relatively) timely manner.
Know Your Stakeholders: While the controversy was initially championed by vegans, it quickly spread to include Starbucks customers who don’t follow vegan diets, but found the idea of crushed bugs in their beverages and pastries unappetizing. If Starbucks had been monitoring the issue when it emerged, there’s the possibility the company would have been able to directly address Daelyn Fortney, the co-founder and managing director of This Dish is Veg and the author of the March 14 post that kicked off the crisis. And even if the media latched onto the story at that time, Starbucks would have likely been able to act even more quickly than it did—at the same time speaking primarily to the incensed vegans who spawned the crisis.
Having thrust the issue of cochineal in consumables and cosmetics into the mainstream media, Starbucks set an example for other cochineal-reliant companies to embrace transparency with their customers, and seek alternate methods of coloring their products. From a broader crisis communication perspective, while insects in consumer products may not be a concern for all companies, any industry with a complex supply chain could be at risk for a similar situation, and should look to and learn from this example as a cautionary tale.
Ensuring the communication department has a seat at the management table, with access to the company’s ingredients and purchasing decisions, will allow a team to adequately plan, prepare and make recommendations to anticipate and avoid potential crises, or navigate them as nimbly as possible.
Margot MacKay is a public relations and social media account executive with Brownstein Group in Philadelphia. She tweets regularly about the PR industry, and can be reached at @msbruschetta or @margotdmackay.