The Starbucks ‘PIG’ Cup: PR Nightmare or Opportunity?

Crisis consultants weigh in on Starbucks' response to police officer's cup controversy

empty starbucks cup
The incident caused polarizing coffee talk on social media. Getty Images
Headshot of Kathryn Lundstrom

After a photo of an Oklahoma police officer’s venti hot chocolate—labeled “PIG”—went viral on Thanksgiving, a Starbucks barista was fired and a local police station is working with the coffee chain to organize a “coffee with a cop” event.

“It happened at the worst possible time for them,” said David Johnson, CEO of Strategic Vision PR Group. “Thanksgiving. You know, that’s a slow news cycle.”

Not only was there very little news to read over the holiday, said Johnson, but a big chunk of the population was on vacation with extra time to peruse social media. “It’s social media that drives the narrative, and the traditional media catches up,” he said.

A quick recap: According to KTUL-TV, a member of the Kiefer, Okla., police department bought five coffees for dispatchers working on Thanksgiving from a Starbucks in Glenpool, Okla. All the cups were labeled “PIG.”

When Kiefer Police Chief Johnny O’Mara was notified of the incident, he made a long (and since-deleted) Facebook post lamenting the labels. “What irks me is the absolute and total disrespect for a police officer who, instead of being home with family and enjoying a meal and a football game, is patrolling his little town,” he wrote, according to The Washington Post. “Just pour the coffee, please.”

In a statement on the night of Thanksgiving, Starbucks announced that the responsible barista had been fired for using poor judgment and violating company policy. And while Starbucks hasn’t confirmed it, the shift manager on duty on Thursday told KTUL that she was also fired to “save some face” even though she didn’t have a hand in the incident.

“Anything like this is going to go viral,” Johnson said, “especially with this police chief and the conservative media.”

According to some, Starbucks is doing everything right. “Firing the barista is the first step in the right direction,” said Hayes Roth, founder of New York-based branding and marketing firm HA Roth. “How you respond is much more important than what happened.” And if it’s an isolated incident that’s handled correctly, it won’t ultimately damage the brand, he added.

In a joint statement released Friday, Starbucks and the Kiefer Police Department announced plans for a Coffee with a Cop event at the Glenpool cafe, and said they are “committed to using this regrettable incident as an opportunity to leverage our shared platforms to promote greater civility.”

Still, the social media narrative machine continues to churn. Some have criticized Starbucks’ swift response, calling for a more thorough investigation before firing the barista. Others are questioning the validity of how the “PIG” label ended up on the cup, while still others are calling for a boycott of Starbucks. One Twitter user, claiming to be the daughter of Chief O’Mara, also chimed in.

Some of these counter-narratives can also play directly into Starbucks’ hands, according to Johnson. “If it’s a family member coming out saying this person really is a horrible person,” he said, and if “other officers feel the same way, it almost makes it look like, did he create this incident for attention, or did he blow it out of proportion?”

In response to critics who say Starbucks acted too quickly in firing the barista, Johnson deemed the fast response as the right move. With a big holiday shopping weekend around the corner, the coffee chain was risking potential protests by supporters of law enforcement that would’ve amplified the story instead of quelling it, he said.

While incidents like this one can seem like a disaster, they also pose an opportunity. What’s important to remember, according to Eric Schiffer, crisis expert and chairman of Reputation Management Consultants, is that “the public is savvier than they ever were.”

“The plague that would normally befall a brand like Starbucks in a scenario like this has some effect,” said Schiffer, “but not nearly the effect it would have in a less sophisticated environment.”

Consumers can tell the difference between one “rogue employee” and a real problem with company culture, said Schiffer. And that’s where the pig cup scenario differs from two separate incidents that dragged down the public perception of Starbucks last year, leading to a company-wide training on racial sensitivity.

“You want to show, organizationally, that you stand for certain principles and values,” said Schiffer. “That’s an important part of how consumers sort today.”

@klundster Kathryn Lundstrom is Adweek's breaking news reporter based in Austin.