In my personal opinion…

I’ve been watching an interesting example of crisis communication unfold in regard to the comments made by Whole Foods chairman and chief executive officer John Mackey. Mr Mackey voiced his criticisms of President Obama’s health care proposals in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece earlier in August. As a response to the negative criticism’s that have followed, Whole Foods has issued a statement to, as The New York Times notes, “distance itself somewhat from its chief’s statements.” The statement, in part, reads:

While Whole Foods Market has no official company-wide position on the health care reform issue, we would not want our very successful and sustainable health care coverage to be jeopardized. Our C.E.O. submitted an opinion piece last week with the intention of expressing his own viewpoints and providing constructive ideas to support reform, as President Obama invited America to do. We have heard from individuals who both agree and disagree with John’s ideas as there are many opinions and emotions surrounding the ongoing health care reform issue, including lots of differing views here inside of Whole Foods Market. We appreciate those diverse perspectives but it is unfortunate there is misinformation and confusion out there to cloud John’s good intentions.

As a PR person, whenever I see crisis communications like this in action I think it’s interesting to carefully look at  the content and tone of the reactive comments. I thought the Whole Foods response seemed to be flawed in that it presents a pretty fundamental misunderstanding of the power of a spokesperson.

The statement begins with a desperate attempt to show that the CEO’s opinions are unique from the organization’s itself. This distinction, while may have been  convenience in  this case, is wishful thinking. Not only is Mackey an  employee, and therefore a representative of Whole Foods, but his role is to guide the company. No matter what he does, his statements are going to have an effect on the company and its resulting image. The opinions of any and all employees constantly shape both the internal and external perception of any organization whether they like it or not. It is both the responsibility of the spokesperson and communications department to be cognizant of this, and the potential consequences.

Also,  as social media is increasingly being used as a hybrid tool for both personal and professional communication, it’s important to keep in mind everything you say is a reflection of your employer and any affinity groups you belong to, like it or not. It’s an important consideration that should not ever be overlooked, both in it’s potential as a positive and detrimental force.

I bring up these points because I find it fascinating to see how companies handle their PR in times of crisis. These situations require people to react with both speed and insight, and the psychology behind these decisions is something that makes me constantly evaluate my own decisions as a communicator. These are also great examples for us to think of what, and what not to do, in our own times of crisis.

2 Responses to “In my personal opinion…”


  1. 1 Bo September 2, 2009 at 12:09 am

    What’s amazing to me is how this became an issue at all.

    Mackey wrote a cool, level-headed essay on what problems he sees with various health reform proposals.

    People who clearly did not read the article flipped out, painting him as a right-wind idealogue. In fact, he is the CEO of one of the most socially responsible companies in the U.S., and a passionate defender of corporate responsibility (he won a debate in libertarian Reason magazine with libertarian idol Milton Friedman and another CEO over corporate responsibilities by taking the most compassionate position).

    So the real interesting PR angle is: “What do you do when you company is under assault from crazed people with a political axe to grind?” The Obama administration should also be interested in this…

  2. 2 Melissa September 2, 2009 at 6:00 am

    I’d be curious to know whether the PR team ghostwrote his op-ed in the first place!


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