Media Training, Whole Foods, Health Care Reform & Cow Poop

The most fundamental rule of media training that I discuss with every executive is this: “If you could attach a dollar to every word that comes out of your mouth, would you make money or lose money?”

That brings us to Whole Foods and the much publicized letter to the editor in the Wall Street Journal, about healthcare reform.

… and in just a bit, we’ll introduce you to new media training concepts for this Austin based company, which include folk-style comparisons to bees, hunting dogs and cow poop.

CEO John Mackey laid out 8 steps that he thinks would help solve the healthcare problems in the U.S. His letter inspired a firestorm of debate, as well as calls for boycotts and a FaceBook page dedicated to the boycott.

On Whole Foods own website there is an active forums section discussing Mackey’s letter, with more than 1,800 discussions on healthcare reform and more than 13,000 posts.

So if we posed the question to Mackey before he wrote the letter; if we posed the question to Mackey after writing the letter; if you posed the question to your CEO, does a letter to the editor like this cause a company to make money or lose money? Is such a letter good or bad for business? Does it cost you sales?

In this case, the answer may be that it is a wash. There is an enormous amount of chatter in the media and on the web about Whole Foods, but the chatter seems equal to the rest of the chatter about the healthcare debate. And while some openly profess that they will not shop at Whole Foods, we can’t quantify how many of them were previous customers, nor can we quantify how many new customers will go to Whole Foods because they agree with the CEO’s point.

But here are 2 things that bother me about this entire issue from a media relations and media training point of view.

1) First, as the media have made inquiries about the letter to Whole Foods, the media relations department has been saying that Mackey wrote his letter as a private citizen and not as the head of Whole Foods. In Texas lingo, where Whole Foods is based, that dog don’t hunt. When you are the co-founder and the CEO of a company, when you use your company’s health care plan as an example in your letter to the editor, when you mention your company by name several times and when your letter discusses the importance of eating healthy food as sold in your stores, there is no separating the man from the business. This was clearly a letter from the CEO of Whole Foods. Meanwhile, the Whole Foods online press room is void of any mention of this national story, although their own online forum is abuzz. Apparently the Whole Foods media relations department is running around like a free range chicken with its head cut off. Trying to separate the writer/CEO from the company he co-founded is pure bull.

2) The second problem is that if you stir up a hornet’s nest ya’ gonna get stung. Mackey makes some strong arguments for his position on healthcare reform. The problem is he stirs the hornet’s nest in his opening paragraphs as he compares the Obama plan to socialism, then he kicks the hornet’s nest one more time for good measure at the end when he gets into a debate of whether “healthcare is an intrinsic right” and whether the rights for “healthcare, food or shelter” are part of the U.S. Constitution.

Had Mackey made his points as, “8 things to consider in the healthcare debate,” there would be little or no firestorm and the 8 points likely would have contained no fuel to ignite calls for boycotts.

I can empathize with Mackey because I can be harsh in what I say and what I write. But you are the CEO and you had to realize there would be consequences. The question is, financially, was it a calculated move and did you even care? We’ll find out as we watch your sales and your stock over the next quarter.

I can empathize with the media relations department because I’ve been put in a fix a time or two by CEO’s who fly off at the mouth. But do you even believe your own B.S.? I don’t think you do? Besides, cow manure is best used as an organic fertilizer and not as a media statement.

Overall, in this case, Whole Foods has stepped in it and the stench will linger on their boots for some time.

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