Crisis: Starbucks Hacked! #SpreadTheCheer?

By: Mackenzie Hodge, @mhodge21

Over the past couple of weeks we have seen both Burger King and Jeep’s official twitter accounts get hacked and some questionable tweets were sent out from the hackers, who attempted to play it off as if the two companies competitors, McDonalds and Cadillac, were behind the scandal.

In December of 2012 Starbucks in the UK was also hacked, but this hack was a bit different than the hacks experienced by Burger King and Jeep. During the holiday season Starbucks launched their #SpreadTheCheer campaign. The idea behind the campaign was that customers would tweet their holiday cheer using that designated hashtag. However, Starbucks failed to take into consideration their image in the news at the time. When Starbucks released this campaign they were in the midst of being accused of only paying 8.6 pounds in taxes over the past 14 years and there was talk that the company planned to cut paid lunch breaks and maternity leave benefits. As you could guess, the public was not so keen on the brand during this time.

Unfortunately for Starbucks their upset customers used the #SpreadTheCheer campaign to voice their disgust with the company instead of tweeting holiday cheer. Here is an example of some of those tweets.

Sbux Tweet 1


Sbux Tweet 3


Sbux Tweet 2






These tweets were swirling around the Twittersphere, but that is not the only place they stayed. To make matters worse these tweets were also amplified on a giant screen over a Starbucks-sponsored ice rink at London’s National History Museum.

Clearly, crisis management was much needed at this point. Starbucks attempted to recover by sending an e-mail to the Huffington Post apologizing to visitors of the ice rink “who may have been offended by the inappropriate messages” that appeared on the screen. They claimed that there had been a “temporary malfunction” with their Twitter filtering system, which allowed the inappropriate tweets to leak through.

But what did they do besides apologize for the inappropriate tweets? They also, ultimately, agreed to pay more taxes than required by law over the next two years. This campaign can appropriately be deemed a fail; they attracted negative attention to their company, they offended customers and users of the ice rink and they ended up having to pay more taxes.

There is a large difference between the Burger King and Jeep hacks and the Starbucks hack. Burger King and Jeep easily regained control over their accounts and apologized for the temporary scandal, plus they benefited from the increase of followers. Meanwhile, Starbucks couldn’t just take back control of their twitter account. The hashtag was out there, the information was out there, and their customers were angry. Really, Starbucks provided their customers with a very public platform to express their anger on.

Clearly this case can be defined as a crisis. So, what does a company do?

In my opinion, there is not much more the company could do after the fact, at that point releasing an apology and vowing to right their wrongs is about all that could be done after the damage. But there are things that could have been done before and during the campaign in order to prevent or lessen the negative effects of the campaign.

  1.  Maybe it’s an obvious solution, but pay the correct amount of taxes…
  2. Proper research and awareness of the attitude of its customers and the public towards the company at the time, before the campaign was launched.
  3. Deal with the negative PR circulating in the news before attempting to bring more attention to the company.
  4. Have a team established that is constantly monitoring the campaign in order to detect early signs of inappropriate tweets and quickly and appropriately address the issues arising

Put yourself in the shoes of Starbucks UK, what would you do? How would you recover from this campaign gone horribly wrong?

9 thoughts on “Crisis: Starbucks Hacked! #SpreadTheCheer?

  1. Mary-Rachel Walsh

    You provide yet another example of how important it is for companies have a crisis management plan on hand. As i read more and more of these situations it becomes clear to me that policy plans are a must for any company no matter the size or the popularity. With that being said it does not work to only have the policy within the company, each employee should be very well acquainted with it and know how to react if a crisis were to take place. Also I think that there should be someone within each company controlling the social media content at all times. This would help the company control what is being said about them and allow them to act quickly if something goes haywire. In terms of Starbucks, I completely agree with everything you said about what they could have done to help diminished the negative results of this campaign. However, I do believe they could have done more after the fact. Perhaps they could have given even more money to a non-profit organization or gave extra benefits for their employees during the month of the crisis. I feel that by Starbucks showing that they truly do care about other things than just monetary value it will regain the trust from their customers and employees.

  2. You brought yet another company who’s social media got disrupted to the table that seems to be making a common effect on today’s social media. Having a company that is in the middle of a financial problem I think is really hard time for a company to try and shine brightness on a twitter campaign. I think as a company they really just didn’t do anything to try and solve their problem. They didn’t even try and support their employees after the fact. To have people speak out about a company on a national hashtag can really hurt a company. Although it doesn’t stop the common public from going to Starbucks, I think they could have handle the damage a lot better. I really agree with your steps you thought they should have taken. Like why did they even end up in this financial standing in the first place. It would be interesting to see how this would have been handled from the UK to the US. Would other precocious been taken if this was in the states?

  3. If I worked for UK Starbucks, I would deal with this crisis carefully. They should have dealt with the tax issue as soon as possible and sent out the news release about the solutions. They should have taken responsibility immediately and had made apology in public. They should have replied to all of the negative comments, and they should have paid more attention to replying to the comments.

  4. I think an interesting thing that this campaign brings up is the fact that the tweets were aggregated together (under the hashtag) on a big screen. I’ve heard of similar things before on websites as well. It’s interesting because you can’t stop a comment made with a hashtag from being added to that conversation or respond to it before it goes up on a big screen. Seems like that is another step of transparency for a company, even if its not intentional and it might end up going badly (like it did for Starbucks). I would be curious to see if more companies will begin using techniques like this in the future.

  5. This example shows how important it is for a company and brand to be aware of what content/opinions/news is circulating about it at all times. This also shows how vital it is for every branch or department of the company to be in consistent contact. Whoever is dealing with the PR fiasco about paying taxes and how customers are being treated should have been in constant communication with everyone else in the company. If the social media team had known (or really thought about) the “spreadthcheer” campaign, they could have either waited to launch the campaign once the other issues were dealt with, or they could have at least been better prepared to deal with negative content that was posted with the hashtag. The biggest issue here is simply being prepared. In this situation, Starbucks should have been able to foresee the problems with launching the campaign when it did, and help prevent some of the negative backlash or stop it before it started altogether. The same goes for companies who can’t control a crisis or public backlash: Always be prepared to deal with the worst and always be listening to the noise about yourself.

  6. I would respond quickly and promptly on Twitter. It’s hard when an initiated campaign backfires, especially when backlash stems from past mistakes. Responding to these tweets would be a good thing on Starbucks’ part. Just like rectifying a relationship with a friend, Starbucks should start by admitting all they did wrong and say what they are actively going to do about it. It’s humbling, and maybe humiliating for Starbucks, but I think it’s the best way to get respect back from their customers.

  7. I think the biggest different in the case of Starbucks versus Burger King and Jeep to keep in mind is that Starbucks was already steeped in negative press at the time they launched their #Spreadthecheer campaign. That made the way in which they dealt with the crisis that much more difficult. I think you make a great point when you suggest that Starbucks should have resolved PR issues before trying to introduce a forum and a hash tag that pissed customers can flock to, to share their thoughts. This would have been really difficult due to the fact that their Spread the Cheer campaign is an annual event that is expected by customers. Had they not gone through with it, I think it still would have gained negative press. On this note, Starbucks should have been dealing with internal issues before they became known to the public. Basically, there were so many different difficulties that caused this situation to become a crisis, but most of it was the result of internal shortcomings, so attending to this should be Starbucks UK’s first priority.

  8. This is a really informative article regarding the Starbucks scandal and the importance of having both a crisis management policy and the people able to carry it out. As you pointed out, this was a quite different crisis than the ones that Jeep and BK faced; not only was it basically brought on by the brand itself, but the crisis was presented in a way that left Starbucks with very few options of how to deal with it and even fewer ways to calm people down. On top of people using the hash tag for obviously unintended purposes (which is bad), the company even had to deal with these tweets getting put up on a jumbo screen… which is worse. I think, something you also hit on, that Starbucks really had no other option: create a forum in which to talk to your customers and change what they don’t like. As much as it probably hurt the execs to do it, changing the way they treat their employees and pay their taxes was completely necessary in this case; people love their coffee but seem to have problems with large companies not playing by the rules. Again, nice article.

  9. Ultimately, owning up to the faults and moving on is all Starbucks could do. A sense of authenticity was lost through the crisis management after paying a higher amount of taxes. As stated in the post, just pay the correct amount because overall, the decision Starbucks made disgusted me. It basically says, “the company has enough money to pay the taxes, so why not pay more?” despite the cutting of lunch breaks and maternity leave. If I was an employee of Starbucks I would have been embarrassed. Moreover, this is a great example of why companies NEED a crisis management plan/team set in place because events like this can happen out of nowhere.

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