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When Bad Things Happen to Good Brands. And What We Can Learn From Them.

Jacque Coe, APR

The video of two African American men being arrested by police in a Philadelphia Starbucks went viral in 2018.

Simply waiting at a table without ordering anything; a manager asked them to either purchase or leave. When they refused, police were called. Public outrage and protests soon followed, and the incident quickly became a painful reminder of the daily reality of being black in America.

But what happened next was unexpected.

“The circumstances surrounding the incident and the outcome at our store on Thursday were reprehensible,” responded Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson. “They were wrong, and for that, I personally apologize to the gentlemen that visited our store.”

And what came next was even more surprising. Within days, Starbucks announced it would close 8,000 stores nationwide for an entire day of unconscious bias training. Soon, headlines appeared: ‘The Philadelphia Incident Was Terrible; Starbucks’ Response Was Admirable.”

Recovering—and learning from–a painful incident is never easy. While the incident and the training can’t erase the past, Starbucks took public steps to address a painful issue–for the future.

How was Starbucks able to find the right path forward, and why is the that path not always apparent for other brands suddenly facing a major image issue?

The Starbucks story is one of a number of national headlines of major issues faced by good brands suddenly facing bad press, and a panel of experts behind those national headlines will share what went on behind the scenes that helped companies, and their customers, move forward. We call it, ‘When Bad Things Happen to Good Brands,’ the feature program of PRSA Puget Sound’s Nov. 13th Annual Meeting in Seattle.

In 2017, former Uber engineer Susan Fowler took allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination at the company public. The company hired former US attorney general Eric Holder to investigate, and twenty employees were later fired. The CEO resigned, and the company has announced changes in the way allegations of harassment will be handled.

Equifax, one of the nation’s top credit reporting agencies, disclosed a major security breach impacting an estimated 143 million people. But the company didn’t disclose the breach for six weeks, and after three executives sold shares of their company stock.


These situations are the type of PR problems that end careers, but they didn’t end lives. None were more devasting than the 1993 Jack in the Box e coli outbreak in a string of the company’s restaurants that infected hundreds of people, killed four children, and left well over 170 other victims with permanent injuries, including kidney and brain damage.

The professionals behind these stories will share their insights on what occurs inside companies and out in the public sector, the role of social media and the instantaneous news cycle, victim confusion, and how communicators can learn, and prepare for the worse, if it ever happens. We are excited to welcome:

  • Erik Moser – Senior VP for Issues and Crisis for Edelman Northwest

  • Nathan Hambley, APR –Policy & Communications for Uber

  • Bill Marler –Managing Partner for Marler Clark Food Safety Law Firm LLC PS

These colleagues are experts in their field, providing perspective behind the scenes of the public relations as well as the legal implications of some crisis scenarios.

Join us Wednesday, November 13th at 5:00 pm at the Seattle Renaissance Hotel for the PRSA Puget Sound Annual Meeting. Tickets include a free drink and dinner, lots of great networking, presentation of awards to leaders in our industry, and the amazing panel of experts.

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