Social media and Whole Foods backlash

Gerard Braud has an excellent article on the fallout of Whole Foods CEO (U.S.) John Mackey’s position on health care reform in the U.S.

There has been a huge backlash to Mackey’s letter to the editor in the Wall Street Journal. There is now a movement to boycott Whole Foods – there is a Facebook page and you can follow the boycott on Twitter.

Whole Foods has a forum section on its website where the discussion is quite heated. Braud says that the Whole Foods’ media relations team have been working to distance the company from the opinion, explaining that Mackey wrote the letter as a private citizen. However, as Braud points out, the letter uses the Whole Foods health care plan as an example and Mackey clearly points out that he is the CEO of Whole Foods throughout his opinion letter.

Mackey is entitled to his opinion. However, publishing that opinion in the Wall Street Journal might not have been the best use of his profile. He uses hot button words (such as socialism) when describing Obama’s Health Care Reform approach and he is a person with some very strong opinions. In writing, his words may come across harsher than perhaps he intended. People are angry about what he had to say and they are coming together to show Whole Foods that they are upset. Social media provides the opportunity for people who disagree with what Mackey says to stand up and say so, to criticize his take on health care and to say their piece. Years ago, the only opportunity they would have would be to write their own letter to the editor in response and to, maybe, plan some local protests. Now it’s a national issue. The people that are angry about his comments can find one another and leverage their ability to get attention through social media.

Social media has empowered the people that might not have had the ability to have their opinions published in the Wall Street Journal. This is a good example of how an issue or crisis can become very big very quickly because of social media.

The Whole Foods’ communications team has a challenge on their hands. They have a CEO with strong opinions and they have a larger—and growing—consumer base that is angry and threatening to spend their money elsewhere. It will be interesting to see what might happen over the next few days or weeks.

What would you do? Have you ever heard your CEO put forward an opinion that worried you? What if he or she made that opinion public in a letter to the editor and there was a consumer backlash that social media played a role in…what would you do?

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  1. One of the fundamentals of media training is that a spokesperson does not have a personal opinion, anything he or she says to the media will be attributed to the company or organization that they represent. All public statements, therefore, need to have a strategic purpose. Most of the CEO’s that I have worked with get that, even if they do end up making bad PR decisions. Our role as PR people is to guide the strategy and sometimes clean up the mess later when our advice is not taken.

    I agree with your observation that social media has empowered people to respond more quickly and with greater impact. The way we help clients in crisis hasn’t changed but the response has to be faster than ever before. Smart companies already have a communications plan in place before the crisis hits.

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