Whole Foods CEO: Too Far Out on the Limb?

More than a week ago, the CEO and Co-Founder of Whole Foods Market, John Mackey, had his name on an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal that opposes the President’s health care plan and offers alternatives.  It was essentially an articulation of a rational argument, grounded in business philosophy.  But throw logic out the window.  This is the most emotional issue in America right now and this piece has ignited controversy.

Tens of thousands of Facebook users have joined an online group saying they’ll boycott Whole Foods.  That’s ironic because Whole Foods is a company we at Tanner Friedman hold up as a model social media communicator in our frequent presentations.  Some analysts believe this public stance will cost the company business and could negatively impact its stock price.  It comes at an unexpected time because public company CEOs are more risk averse than perhaps ever before in their public communications. Because of the down economy and rock-bottom public perceptions of Corporate America, most CEOs want to play it safe  – often too safe (to the detriment of their brands).  But, in this case, a CEO (and presumably his communications team) went out on a limb.  But maybe too far?

These questions could determine what level of crisis this controversy reaches:

-What did his Board know and when did they know it?  If this controversy catches the Whole Foods Board by surprise and also negatively impacts business, it could mean trouble for Mackey.  That will depend on whether those who proclaim a boycott actually stay away and for how long.

-How will the company respond to the controversy, to contain it?

-Will other companies join in and publicly support Whole Foods’ position?  If so, it could dilute the controversy.

The big winner in all of this is The Wall Street Journal. So much, at least for now, for the demise of the newspaper editorial page.  Mackey’s piece is among the most read items on wsj.com, nine days later, and every item about this controversy has mentioned the Journal.

It’s important to remember that the only media bias that really exists every day is a bias toward controversy.  That’s why this story could linger, for perhaps as long as uncertainty and emotion reign in the health care debate.

For more, visit this link to Lucy Anne Lance’s radio show in Michigan, on which I appeared this morning to discuss the Whole Foods situation.  The interview is expected to be posted soon, if it isn’t there already.