PR lessons from the social media hoax targeting Starbucks

By Ted Kitterman | Posted: January 11, 2018

“Fake news” takes many forms, and it can have real-world consequences.

An Atlanta-area Starbucks closed after it received phone threats and the parent company was unable to convince some that a social media post claiming to be from a disgruntled Starbucks employee was a hoax.

The Washington Post reported on the faux Facebook posts:

The admissions from a Starbucks employee were apparently too revolting not to share. Spitting in a woman’s coffee, sprinkling dog feces in a child’s hot chocolate, mixing blood into jam — all were disgusting acts, presumably committed by a black woman, Shanell Rivers, targeting white customers in the Atlanta area and detailed on Facebook for the world to see.

The digital outrage spurred real-life consequences Sunday, forcing the store in Brookhaven, north of Atlanta, to close two hours early, a Starbucks corporate staffer told The Washington Post.

Maj. Brandon Gurley, a Brookhaven Police Department spokesman, said police responded with additional patrols in the area. Authorities have also launched an investigation to determine how the false information spread, Gurley said.

Starbucks first responded to the post on social media, once users directly messaged the company asking whether management had heard anything about the social media post detailing fouled coffee drinks.

Starbucks’ response was intended to reassure its customers and the public at large.

Still, some seemed unconvinced that something sinister wasn’t occurring at Starbucks, and they wanted a pledge from the company that it would investigate its employees.

[FREE DOWNLOAD: Keep your cool in a crisis with these 13 tips.]

The nightmare is part of a greater trend in American society: Online rumors can run rampant and lead to real-world actions. The Washington Post continued:

Such targeted false accusations are reminiscent of #Pizzagate, the debunked conspiracy theory that suggested that Washington pizza restaurant Comet Ping Pong was harboring a child sex ring involving Hillary Clinton. That online fever dream sparked hundreds of death threats against the restaurant’s owner and culminated on Dec. 4, 2016, when Edgar Welch fired three shots inside Comet Ping Pong as part of a self-proclaimed mission to rescue children.

As for the Georgia case of this week, the Post reported:

A Starbucks spokeswoman said Monday that the Facebook post “is completely false” and that Starbucks does not have an employee named Shanell Rivers.

Some detractors suggested that Starbucks’ headache was its own doing, having stemmed from the company’s positions on societal issues, such as supporting immigration reform and other measures.

What can brand managers do to stop the spread of false information that can have a detrimental effect on the bottom line—or risk even greater damage to the organization?

Start by ensuring your brand has a reputation for honesty and transparency. If your organization is known for secrecy and misdirection, it will be impossible to convince the public that your message is honest and that social media scammers and agenda-driven trolls are lying.

Yieldify has published a list of ways brands can build trust over time with their consumer base.

It lists:

1. Allow negative (as well as positive) reviews of your products to appear on your sites.

2. Don’t overpromise on what your product (or organization) can do.

3. Only upsell when it is in the customer’s interest.

4. Keep any promises your organization makes.

5. Stay consistent across all touchpoints, from social media to customer service.

6. Develop personalization so that customers feel you are invested in them.

What are you doing to fend off fake news, PR Daily readers?

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