By Lisa Baertlein
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Starbucks Corp Chief Executive Howard Schultz has deftly navigated thorny issues such as gay marriage, gun control and Congressional gridlock, but his move to weigh in on U.S. race relations has brewed up a social media backlash.
The company kicked off the discussion when it published full-page ads in major U.S. newspapers earlier this week with the words "Shall We Overcome?" at center page and "RaceTogether" and the Starbucks logo near the bottom.
Company employees, known as baristas, were also given the option of writing "Race Together" on customers' coffee cups to help initiate dialog amid renewed racial tensions stemming from the shooting of an unarmed black 18-year-old male by a white policeman in August in Ferguson, Missouri.
The campaign was met with snark and skepticism on social media, with many people complaining the company was overstepping it boundaries with a campaign on sensitive cultural topics that had no place in the coffee shop's lines.
"Not sure what @Starbucks was thinking. I don't have time to explain 400 years of oppression to you & still make my train. #RaceTogether," wrote Twitter user @ReignOfApril, who describes herself as a Washington, D.C. lawyer.
Other users pointed out that photos for the campaign only featured white baristas holding cups bearing the hand-written "Race Together" message. Some came up with satirical names under the hashtag #NewStarbucksDrinks, such as "iced white privilege mocha" and "by any beans necessary".
The initiative includes a partnership with newspaper USA Today "to stimulate conversation, compassion and action around race in America." It coincided with the company's annual shareholder meeting in Seattle on Wednesday.
"We at Starbucks should be willing to talk about these issues in America," Schultz said in a post on Starbucks.com. "Not to point fingers or to place blame, and not because we have answers, but because staying silent is not who we are."
Starbucks Senior Vice President of Global Communications Corey duBrowa said in a blog post on Medium.com that he temporarily deactivated his Twitter account earlier this week because he "felt personally attacked in a cascade of negativity" in response to the campaign.
He referred reporters back to the blog post when asked for further comment.
"The Race Together initiative is just beginning," the company said in a statement on Wednesday. "We knew this wouldn't be easy, but we feel it is well worth the discomfort. "
(Reporting by Lisa Baertlein in Los Angeles; Additional reporting by Bill Rigby in Seattle; Edtiting by Alan Crosby)