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A Whole Big Mess

August 31st, 2009

Whole Foods, the organic supermarket chain, has spent the last three weeks in full crisis communications mode following the Wall Street Journal’s publication of an OPED written by the company’s CEO, John Mackey.

Mackey wrote the OPED in an attempt to present some potential solutions to the incredibly complex issue of Health Care Reform. Typically, this is what we want from corporate leaders – someone willing to get engaged in important societal discussions.

But it might be a while before anyone goes out on this limb again. Mackey’s OPED was seen as a punch in the gut of liberals… a significant problem since Whole Foods customer-base is, well, pretty damn liberal. And that customer base is now mad as hell.

The furor came quickly. Liberal Hot Spot Daily Kos erupted in left-leaning outrage.  There was a movement to boycott Whole Foods, as well as hand-wringing about whether liberal consumers of organic foods could live without Whole Foods.

Mackey tried to explain that, basically, he’d been misquoted, including the fact that his title “Health Care Reform” was changed by a WSJ editor to “Whole Foods Alternative to Obamacare.”

Now, Mackey and Whole Foods are in a tough spot. We always counsel our clients that every question in a crisis communications situation boils down to “do you care?” Mackey cared enough to weigh in on the important discussion about Health Care Reform.

The problem is that he ticked off his customer base – rule #1 for running a business is “don’t upset the customers.”

Now, it’s fair to question whether Mackey has the best interests of his best customers in mind. If he can’t convince them that he does, his position isn’t recoverable. He, and the company, can basically head in two distinct directions.

  1. They can run screaming from the Health Care discussion and keep on apologizing. This will ultimately end in Mackey leaving the company, one way or another.
  2. They can embrace the debate and try to become a leader in the discussion.

Option 1 is the easiest solution for the company. For Mackey, Option 2 is the only way he keeps his job. So… is it worth it to him? And if so, can he convince his Board of Directors that it’s worth the fight to them?

Posted Under: Crisis Communications, Media & Journalism, Public Relations
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