Starbucks Tries Social Media on Flickr, Fails, Locks Down All Discussion Threads to Silence Their Critics

Starbucks Tries Social Media on Flickr, Fails, Locks Down All Discussion Threads to Silence Their Critics

I was troubled today to see Starbucks take the draconian step of locking down 100% of their group threads in the Official Starbuck’s group on Flickr. All threads were locked today and a note was added to their Flickr Group reading:

“This group has helped inform us of the inconsistent experiences photographers have in our stores. We have put group discussion on hold until we have more updates on an official policy for photography in our stores. We appreciate your patience and encourage you to check back in the following months for an update.”

Censorship is never good and for a corporation to open a dialogue with their customers and then shut it down due to criticism is pretty much directly in contrast to the transparency that social media ought to be about.

In December I blogged about the difficulty that Starbuck’s was having articulating a reasonable photo policy in their Flickr group where they have been being attacked by photographers over the course of the past months. Many photographers on Flickr felt it was somewhat hypocritical of Starbucks to encourage photographers to post photos representing their “Starbuck’s experience” when so many photographers were regularly being told that they are not allowed to photograph in Starbuck’s stores.

The question about whether or not photography is or is not allowed in Starbucks stores still seems very much in the air, and from the request that photographers now check back with the group in the “months” ahead (after having this issue linger since September of last year) it doesn’t sound like they will be resolving this question anytime soon. Taking over six months to respond to photographers on this issue is a huge Starbucks FAIL. And now locking their threads to avoid continued criticism for what will likely be many more months, well, it’s obvious that Starbucks does not get social media and an even bigger FAIL.

Starbucks should apologize to the photographers who have invested many hours in this group of theirs and reopen threads. They should make it a priority to establish a reasonable photo policy and have it communicated to their stores ASAP. Of course their timing for shutting down their group threads, late on a Friday afternoon where it hopefully will get lost over the weekend on the web is also pretty obvious and weak.

There is an unlocked thread on another non-official Starbucks group about this issue here.

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34 comments on “Starbucks Tries Social Media on Flickr, Fails, Locks Down All Discussion Threads to Silence Their Critics
  1. Jason Hill says:

    This is pretty lowly of Starbucks. I always hated their policy about photography in their stores. I was told to stop taking photos once when I tried to take a photo of my family while we were in Vermont. I have since never been back to Starbucks and I try to speak out against them whenever I can.

  2. MacSmiley says:

    I can’t tell you I’ve been paying much attention to Starbucks, on or off Flickr. But I just went to join the group and I was presented with “group rules” that are written in LEGALESE with disclaimers and liability caps!!

    That’s ridiculous. Needing an attorney to decide whether or not to join a Flickr group, in and of itself, is a FAIL!

  3. Keith says:

    I just checked and image posting to Flickr/Starbuckscoffeecompany is still open even though all discussions are locked. The images are probably an oversight and I expect them to dump all images to problems with the stores.

  4. SteelToad says:

    Starbucks should definitely remove the photos from the group. If they have no intention of allowing any activity in the group then they most certainly are not going to be promoting the group, and that is the only purpose for which they are supposed to have permission to use them.

  5. Gary Denness says:

    I’d give them at least a bit of credit….someone at least tried to open the company up to Flickr and social media, even if they did screw it up.

    There’s a set of ideas in one thread regards photo rules in store, which seem fine to me. So why not get them implemented. In the Us at least.

    Key objectives of our photo policy:

    • We want to encourage people to take photos of and share their Starbucks Experience. We also believe photos should generally represent your Starbucks Experience (i.e., pictures of your Starbucks drink, your friends, your table, etc).

    • If you want to take a photo where other customers or employees are a key element, we think you should ask permission and respect their privacy if they say ‘no’. We think this fits in with the Flickr Community Guideline of “Do play nice”.

    • We believe photos should not affect store operations (please don’t setup big equipment or act in a manner that ends up interfering with normal store operations as this may interfere with non-photographer’s enjoyment of the store).

  6. Anonymous says:


  7. Matthew Guiste says:


    Thanks for the thoughtful analysis, and for your and all of our photographer’s passion about this topic.

    First let me say we didn’t close down the discussion because of criticism. We have a long history (in social media terms) of not just allowing, but encouraging feedback of all kinds. We created a website––for that very purpose which is happily about to start it’s third year in operation. We also have more fans than any brand in the world on Facebook and a YouTube channel that’s had more than 4 million total video views. Conversations in these sites cover the full spectrum of opinion and we very rarely remove anything.

    We paused the discussions for one simple reason: we believe they are causing more confusion than they were eliminating.

    Let me explain:

    From store employees to our customer service teams, we’ve learned over the last few months that there is wide variability in what the assumptions are about our own policies regarding photos in our stores. Having the Flickr group has made this painfully evident. This seems like a pretty simple issue to fix (it was to us too, at first). But instead we’ve found one layer after another of complexity to the issue. In fact, there is tremendous debate over what the policy should be. Should you have to get permission from people in our stores to use them in a photo? How much equipment is ok? Under what conditions can you take pictures of our store partners (employees)? Each of these issues, and many others like them, have clear simple answers to each person–unfortunately what we’ve found is that the answers are simply different from person to person!

    Our task then is to thoughtfully hear through the different points of view and provide a well-reasoned policy that we can clearly communicate to all. You, our photographer community, have helped us tremendously in that endeavor, and I think you for that.

    Unfortunately, this is not a quick process. Remember our answer has to apply to thousands of stores, tens of thousands of store employees, and millions of customers. At the same time, I agree we should have been faster recognizing the problem and moved more aggressively to fix it. My sincere apologies for that. But I assure you we are on it now. I LOVE seeing photos from our stores on Flickr. My goal over the next few months is to provide that clear, concise policy, get it communicated to all our employees, and to be a strong and active participant with you on Flickr. I want to use our group to celebrate photographers and photography of the life that happens in our stores.

    I hope you forgive us this hiccup on the starting blocks and will continue on that journey with us because I think the finish line is going to be awesome.

    BTW, I would welcome your feedback on how we can re-open the discussion groups in a way that’s helpful. I don’t like them closed, either.

    Matthew Guiste
    director, global social media

  8. SteelToad says:


    I can see where you may think that it is a very complicated issue, and I’m even willing to concede that it is a complicated problem that may take months to solve.

    I’ll put the question to you as I did to Anali, If you know it may take months to resolve, why not send stores a reminder of what the current policy says. Also could you please enlighten us as to what the current policy is.

  9. greg says:

    This clearly sounds like the classic corporate case of one arm of a large organization being in conflict with another. Marketing versus Legal. Brand Strategy versus Public Relations. Or, as is often the case, a battle between executive VPs even in the same division. All played out so onerously in front of the public.

    That said, I still don’t understand the actual value proposition of a Starbucks Flickr feed other than an occasional feel-good press release anyway. It makes about as much commercial and *consumer* sense as a Flickr feed for any other corporate Goliath, ranging from Wal-Mart to McDonald’s to KFC. Perhaps photography pros see a lot more value there, but I don’t see any.

  10. Matthew Guiste says:


    Definitely see your point on that. The challenge is that store employees are bombarded with communication–tons of information about every new product, every new policy, every new register key change, what’s going on at corporate, information about their own jobs–you can probably imagine just how much information they have to integrate. So it generally works better to create a “final answer” policy than an interim one and then a final one just a few weeks later. Actually waiting a little bit may, ironically, get us quicker to the situation where we all want–everyone in the store knows the rules.

    I promise you this: we’ll evaluate the best communication plan in that context and do whatever is going to get to that point faster.

    Happily, we have the same goals. We hope you can give us just a little bit of trust on that point.

  11. Matthew Guiste says:


    I think it’s less about one part of the company being against another part, and more that this issue was just under the radar.

    I manage all of our online communities and have done so since just about day 1 of Starbucks participation in them. I can tell you in all honesty that this is not a big topic of conversation in any other site. What our joining Flickr did was bring a focal point to the issue and alerted us to the problem in a much bigger way. And I’m happy it did!

    So that’s one useful thing about Starbucks’ participation in Flickr: it gives the photographer community a natural and direct line of communication with the company.

    That being said, we are continuing to evaluate what other value we can bring by our involvement. We understand explicitly that community participation is an earned thing: if we add value to the community, we’ll be successful; if we don’t, we won’t.

    We do have some special things planned that I think the Flickr community will find exciting, but we have to solve this issue first.


  12. SteelToad says:


    I’m glad you see my point, and I’m sorry that your employees are bombarded with so much information that a reminder of current company policy would be a burden. Waiting until you have a “final answer” may be very convenient for the company, but in essence what you are saying is that for the sake of convenience you are willing to disaffect a block of customers. Anali’s posts, and yours above have both hinted at a policy change in the “coming months”, but you say you don’t want to confuse your employees for a matter that may be resolved in ‘just a few weeks’ ?

    I have no doubt that if a Starbucks employee accidentally put cleaner in somebody’s drink and made them sick, there would be no delay, no waiting for a “final answer”, no concern for overwhelming employees; I’m quite sure a notice would go out to stores reminding them to keep dangerous materials away from the food area.

    There should be no concern of confusing employees by reminding them about policy that they should already have been trained on. A simple “Don’t forget our policy on photography is …” or a “Please refresh yourself on photography policy on page … of the training manual”. Refusing to remind the stores about EXISTING policy only reinforces the presumption that photography is not allowed, and that is why a reminder isn’t being sent.

    Again I ask, what is the current Starbucks policy towards photography in stores. Starbucks can have whatever policy they like, (it’s your store) but please, what is the policy as it stands now.

    If you could, please refresh yourself with the various discussion threads in the Flickr group. Any responses to any of the points I raised in my Open letter to Anali would also be gratefully awaited.

    Raymond Andrews.
    Starbucks Customer Relations case # 7981444

  13. charles says:

    “BTW, I would welcome your feedback on how we can re-open the discussion groups in a way that’s helpful. I don’t like them closed, either.”


    Here’s my suggestion. Just reopen all the threads and have a clear section on the group with regular updates about the “photography policy development” process. Post often on the matter. Complete transparency and openness are the best way to admit that you’ve screwed up but are trying to make things better, all without completely losing face.

  14. Matthew Guiste says:

    Charles: I like your idea. I think that’s something we can do better: be clearer about the current status of things, timelines, etc. I’ll make that happen tomorrow.

    SteelToad: I hear you. I will talk more with Anali and get back to you on those points. From we’ve been able to determine there actually ISN’T a policy on this topic. There is a policy on “media photography”–with the attendant equipment/store disruption, etc–and it appears that some of those tenants have been passed down verbally and have come to be assumed to apply to all photography. But it’s not the fault of the store personnel, they are doing the best they can in absence of any other guidance. Opening the Flickr group has shown that gap, a gap we are moving quickly to close. Well, “quickly” is an adjective this group might contend with, but we are moving. :)

    We have agreement on most of the key terms internally, and the next steps are to formalize that and then communicate it. But I’ll get more explicit on those details.

    Thanks again to all for your energy and interest in this topic. It is greatly appreciated. I want that to come through.


  15. Matthew Guiste says:

    Oops! Meant to say: Well, “quickly” is an adverb this group might contend with.” Of course quickly is an adjective and Lolly would be appalled if I didn’t correct that.


  16. SteelToad says:

    “they are doing the best they can in absence of any other guidance”

    So …. give them the guidance.

    I’ve watched with amazement, a pair of baristas take up to 10 orders for different drinks, convey them to one another and get them all correct. I’m positive you could not confuse these people with:

    “Here’s a reminder of what our current policy is …. oh by the way we are working on an update that will be out in a few weeks to a few months”

    followed by

    “Here’s the new policy, you remember, the one we told you was coming a few weeks to a few months ago”

    You’ve acknowledged a communication and training issue, but are willing to disaffect anyone trying to take a photo, for your convenience in resolving the problem.

  17. torgeaux says:

    The real problem is that the group is still active, and per its own “mission statement” is encouraging photography in the stores. Where they know the stores are hostile to this, encouraging customers to continue to act contrary to local policy, Starbucks is playing with fire.

    The next time a barista assaults a customer taking pictures, there’s going to be corporate liability.

  18. torgeaux says:

    Matthew Guiste said: “First let me say we didn’t close down the discussion because of criticism….We paused the discussions for one simple reason: we believe they are causing more confusion than they were eliminating.”

    I have to say I don’t agree. There is no way that a discussion by your flickr members could cause confusion. The participation in those discussions by your employees could cause confusion, but that’s no reason to lock out the rest of the discussion. If you can’t bother to clarify to your stores the simple fact that there is no policy AGAINST customers taking pictures, then why bother with a more formal policy. You’ve stated above that there is no such policy against photography, so why not just say so. Just that, nothing more. Instead, you continue to make the conscious decision that misunderstandings and conflict is better. Bad choice, as a corporation and as a customer service operation.

    Please try to defend the position that this chaos is better than some knowledge?

  19. SteelToad says:

    Not to be redundant but,

    “Again I ask, what is the current Starbucks policy towards photography in stores.” that is, what have the stores been told is the policy ?

  20. base says:

    “The next time a barista assaults a customer taking pictures, there’s going to be corporate liability.”


  21. Matthew Guiste,
    With all due respect, sir, poppycock and rubbish! You know you mislead the public when you opened the flickr group. You know the group is now more of an embarrassment than a promotion, and you know Analisamarie has been completely incompetent at administration of the group. Shut it down until the corporate shills get their act together. I love the team of incredibly competent employees at my local Starbucks. They’re like family to me. But the obvious idiocy of the folks at the Seattle team is making the whole company look bad. Come back to flickr after you’ve done your homework. Until then, you’re just stepping deeper into it, and embarrasing yourselves even further.

  22. j.magnuson says:

    Starbucks has at least clarified one policy…..

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