I’ve heard and a read a lot of PR pundits calling the Whole Foods’ CEO’s recent foray into the national health care debate everything from a PR snafu to a PR nightmare. But I confess to not sharing this opinion, and here’s why…
(If you’re not familiar, John Mackey, CEO of specialty grocer Whole Foods Market Inc., recently penned an editorial for the Wall Street Journal questioning the wisdom of the public option being discussed and debated with respect to health care reform. What (predictably) followed was an organized boycott of the Whole Foods’ stores by those who take issue with Mr. Mackey’s opinion on the emotionally charged topic.)
Many PR types have rushed in to chide Mr. Mackey for even touching the topic with a 10-foot pole, let alone picking sides in a controversial debate. After all, health care is replacing Social Security as politics’ new third rail—touch it, you die. I can certainly understand the instinct of these PR professionals. Counseling clients to stay out of politics, religion and controversy is a defensible position and, more times than not, sound PR counsel. Heck, we are often in the business of telling our clients how, when and why to be quiet on certain matters. These PR pros sometimes take a mocking tone, however, suggesting that Mr. Mackey should have known better—or been advised of—the obvious and apparent idiocy of publicly jumping into the debate. Such a boycott was inevitable, and Mr. Mackey was fated to anger a good portion of his customer base, regardless of the position he took. So why do it?
That’s all fine and good…and, again, I understand and typically agree with such advice. However, allow me to offer a contrary point of view:
First, let’s look at the results of this “PR nightmare”:
- Whole Foods’ sales, profits and stock price skyrocketed during the month of this controversy. We should all be so lucky to endure such a disaster.
- From a publicity standpoint, Mr. Mackey (and Whole Foods in general) is now famous for securing an opinion piece in one of the world’s most respected publications. Regardless of your opinion, what everyone takes away from this at the very base level is this: The Wall Street Journal thought enough of Whole Foods and Mr. Mackey to solicit their expertise and opinion on one of the most important issues of the day.
- Whole Foods has been top-of-mind and all over every major media outlet for a couple of weeks now. If there were folks who hadn’t heard of the grocer before, you can bet they have now.
But I don’t think Mr. Mackey did this for exposure or sales or profits or publicity. And ends don’t necessarily justify means. However, the above simply illustrates that, whatever you think of it, it cannot be categorically defined as a “PR nightmare.” Furthermore, the boycotts have been relatively small in numbers, and now even anti-boycotters are organizing in support of the company and CEO.
My only point is this: Companies cannot allow the pitchfork-wielding tail to wag the corporate dog. In a debate over how to reform 1/6 of the nation’s economy, shouldn’t one of our largest employers be allowed to weigh in on employer-sponsored health care—nay, shouldn’t we be soliciting their perspective? Especially a company that has been very generous in the benefits they provide to their employees?
Can companies operate and conduct their public personae based on constant fear of retribution? Is it wise PR policy to focus-group every opinion, every action, every public policy statement? If so, in which cases can they expect to please 100% of their constituents? Should our corporate leaders be issued a PR gag order when discussing weighty (if controversial) issues? Should they have no voice at all? What has Whole Foods lost through these events? What have they gained?
Furthermore, which passage in the editorial was inflammatory, degrading, insulting or otherwise incendiary? Do we boycott companies we merely disagree with, in addition to those who conduct themselves in truly bad ways? If this is the new paradigm, PR practitioners should be advising their clients everywhere to stick their heads in the proverbial sand, as there’s just no pleasing some people.
So, in essence, I think “PR nightmares” are in the eye of the beholder. I’ve seen many in my day, but this isn’t one of them.