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Given that many Whole Foods customers consider themselves progressive or politically liberal (e.g., Mui, 2009, August 19), it is not surprising that Mackey’s editorial generated a negative reaction. For example, the website “The Huffington Post” featured a series of blog posts criticizing Mackey and his position on healthcare reform. Blogger Ben Wyskida (2009, August
14) wrote a post arguing that Mackey did not understand his own brand given that Mackey’s position on healthcare put him at odds with “about 80 percent of his customers, who may now feel betrayed and antagonized.” A group of self-proclaimed opponents to Mackey and his position on healthcare created a website calling for a boycott of the company (www.wholeboycott.com). Later, an anti-Whole Foods facebook page was created that grew to more than 30,000 members.
Interestingly, the publicity surrounding the Mackey editorial also resulted in a positive response toward the company from bloggers and commentators who identified themselves as “politically independent” or conservative. For example, a number of bloggers linked to the editorial and wrote pro-Whole Foods posts, and the Nationwide Tea Party Coalition (2009), a loose coalition of independent and conservative voters, created a pro-Whole Foods website (www.teacottwholefoods.com), where a series of “buycotts” to show economic and ideological support for Mackey and Whole Foods were organized.
The dynamic between the self-identified supporters of Whole Foods who stated their shock and anger at Mackey’s editorial and the individuals who had previously not supported Whole Foods because of their perception of the company but changed once the editorial was published is at the heart of the current paper. After providing a brief discussion of the history of the company, we then give a more-detailed discussion of the reaction from both sides to the editorial. We then present a descriptive analysis of comments and reaction to the controversy by self-identified existing and new customers of Whole Foods. Of particular interest are examples of comments or blog posts that reveal a perception that the company’s position on healthcare was at odds with those of the commenter. This analysis is informed by coorientation theory (McLeod & Chafee, 1973; Pearson, 1989), which suggests that an important part of successful communication involves the orienting process that two parties engage in within their shared communication environment. Important factors that influence communication effectiveness within that environment are agreement, accuracy, and congruency (see discussion below). The paper concludes with a discussion of public communication by a CEO in an increasingly polarized political environment that is also characterized by tools which facilitate organization and action by alienated or activated publics.
926 Brief History of Whole Foods Whole Foods Markets is a 287-store retailer of natural and organic foods with approximately 50,000 employees and stores in 38 states, Washington D.C., as well as Canada and England. Whole Foods ranked No. 284 on the Fortune 500 list of largest U.S. companies for fiscal year 2009, with revenues of $8.0 billion and a profit of $146 million (“Fortune 500,” n.d.).
The company was founded in 1980 by John Mackey and his partners Rene Lawson Hardy, Craig Weller and Mark Skiles. Mackey wanted to create an organic food alternative to grocer giant Safeway, and the first store in Austin, Texas, was supposed to be the antithesis to the large corporate food markets that controlled the industry.
From its inception, the company set out to demonstrate that it was not only different in the products it offered but also in the core values that guided its business practices. The current
version of the company’s values include (“Values Overview,” n.d.; emphasis ours):
• Selling the highest quality natural and organic products available
• Satisfying and delighting customers
• Supporting team member happiness and excellence
• Creating wealth through profits and growth
• Caring about communities and the environment
• Creating ongoing win-win partnerships with suppliers
• Promoting the health of company stakeholders through healthy eating education The company also states that “[Our customers] are our most important stakeholders in our business and the lifeblood of our business. Only by satisfying our customers first do we have the opportunity to satisfy the needs of our other stakeholders” (“Values Overview,” n.d.).
Examples of company policies that demonstrate its commitment to its employees include the policy where no one at the company could have a salary more than nineteen times what the average employee makes. This has resulted in a salary of about $400,000 for company copresident and chief operating officer, one of the lowest annual salaries for a company president in the Fortune 500. As CEO, Mackey makes $1 per year, although that salary is supplemented by the stock in the company that he owns. Finally, the company provides health insurance and pays 100 percent of premiums for the 89 percent of Whole Foods employees who work 30 or more hours a week, a significant percentage higher than its competitors. In fact, it was in part because of the perceived success in providing healthcare benefits to Whole Foods employees that led Mackey to write an editorial about healthcare reform.
Whole Foods CEO writes an editorial Mackey was contacted by the editorial page staff of The Wall Street Journal and asked to write about healthcare reform in the summer of 2009. At that time, there was considerable debate in the U.S. about plans for healthcare reform being considered by the Congress. While the title on the editorial submitted by Mackey was simply “Healthcare Reform,” copy editors at the Journal chose the more inflammatory headline of “The Whole Foods Alternative to Obamacare.” The editorial appeared on Aug. 11, and Mackey later expressed frustration at the headline in a post on his “CEO Blog” that links from the main corporate website (2009, 14 August). Mackey stated that he was answering the president’s invitation “…to all Americans to put forward constructive ideas for reforming our health care system.” Nevertheless, Mackey began his editorial with a provocative quote by Margaret Thatcher, who beside President Ronald Reagan is probably the individual most closely associated with the 927 modern conservative movement. The quote—“The problem with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people’s money”—set the tone for the editorial, as well as the reaction by many of its readers.
After establishing the bleak financial future of the U.S. (e.g., large deficit, strain on Social Security and Medicare of retiring Baby Boomers), Mackey provided a series of eight suggestions for reducing healthcare costs. Each of the suggestions was oriented toward individual responsibility and market-based solutions to providing healthcare. The suggestions included changing tax law in order to reduce the disadvantage faced by individual purchasers of health insurance, allowing the purchase of health insurance across state lines, repeal health insurance mandates, tort reform, and high deductible health insurance policies.
One of Mackey’s final statements became a flashpoint for many who reacted negatively to the editorial. Mackey argued that access to healthcare was not an intrinsic right and that healthcare is “best provided through voluntary and mutually beneficial market exchanges rather than through government mandates” (Mackey, 2009, August 11). Mackey then noted that about 70% of healthcare dollars go to treat preventable diseases such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, and obesity and concluded the editorial with a broad statement of individual responsibility, “We are all responsible for our own lives and our own health. We should take that responsibility very seriously and use our freedom to make wise lifestyle choices that will protect our health.” Response from “most important stakeholders” Reaction to Mackey’s editorial started slowly but built quickly over the days and weeks after the editorial appeared. The Huffington Post, a website that features primarily progressive and liberal bloggers, included a series of posts that attacked Mackey and the editorial for abandoning Whole Foods’ customer base and its core values. For example, blogger Ben Wyskida (2009, August 14) argued that Mackey obviously did not understand his own brand because Mackey’s position that there was no universal right to healthcare put him at odds with about “80 percent of his customers.” Wyskida said these customers probably felt betrayed and antagonized
and concluded that he would no longer shop at Whole Foods, writing “To me, it’s pretty basic:
Mackey is working to oppose things I believe in, so I should stop giving him money.” Blogger Ethan Nichtern (2009, August 15), director of a Buddhist-inspired nonprofit organization, had a similar reaction to the editorial, which he characterized as “straight from Rush Limbaugh’s playbook” and displaying “selfish individualism, mistrust for the very notion of representative government itself, and continued support for a system of profit on anabolic steroids.” Nichtern noted that Whole Foods’ own mission statement is titled “Declaration of Interdependence,” which implies that everyone is connected and dependent on one another for the collective well-being. Nichtern called Mackey’s positions hypocritical and stated that he also would no longer shop at Whole Foods.
Media coverage of the negative reaction to the editorial It didn’t take long for the mainstream media to report on the negative reaction to the editorial. One of The New York Times’ “opinionator bloggers” 97 Eric Etheridge (2009, August
17) wrote a post about the controversy in which he discussed the response in the blogosphere and noted that at least some shoppers were planning to boycott the company. The Washington Post also ran a story (Mui, 2009, August 19) on the reaction to Mackey’s editorial, which the author described as a “liberal customer base go[ing] ballistic.” Mui quoted Thomas Goldstein, who supported a boycott of Whole Foods. “We want CEOs to understand that they benefit from progressive policies and fact costs when they take right-wing stands,” Goldstein said. Another Whole Foods customer quoted in the same article said, “A lot of people are sad to look at this corporation and see that it is just like any other, if not worse.” The feelings of disillusionment with Mackey and Whole Foods coalesced into a more concerted effort to boycott Whole Foods. As noted, the website “wholeboycott.com” was established the week after the editorial appeared. It contained a series of articles and commentaries arguing against Mackey’s position on healthcare reform. The website also included information about boycotts and protests by Whole Foods customers and links to other websites that supported a boycott. One of those links was to a facebook group “Whole Foods Boycott,” which gained more than 30,000 members within a month of the editorial appearing.
The mission of the group stated, “The Whole Foods brand was built with the dollars of deceived progressives.
Let them know your money will no longer go to support Whole Foods to provide the platform for their anti-union CEO to influence healthcare policy and derail the debate with insurance industry, right wing propaganda” (Whole Foods Boycott, 2009).
Fans of the page were encouraged to post photos of cash register receipts from competitors of Whole Foods and to attend demonstrations in front of different stores throughout the country.
Staging a “buycott” One of the most interesting responses to the Mackey editorial came from people who describe themselves as “politically independent” or conservative. A number used the opportunity provided by the discussion over the editorial to assert their support for Mackey and Whole Foods. For example, Radley Balko (2009), who writes for The Agitator, a conservative politics and culture blog, had this to say about Mackey’s piece, “I plan to do a lot more shopping at Whole Foods in the coming weeks…. Whole Foods is consistently ranked among the most employee-friendly places to work in the service industry. In fact, Whole Foods treats employees a hell of a lot better than most liberal activist groups do. The company has strict environmental and humane animal treatment standards about how its food is grown and raised…In short, Whole Foods is everything leftists talk about when they talk about ‘corporate responsibility.’” The Times Online (Ayres, 2009, September 9) ran an article titled “Whole Foods boss John Mackey becomes unlikely hero of the U.S. Right.” In it the author said the average “guntoting, churchgoing, flag-saluting American conservative would not be found dead walking the aisles of a Whole Foods supermarket,” but that that may have changed due to Mackey’s position on the Obama administration’s health care policy. The story quoted several self-identified conservatives who reported a sudden interest in shopping at Whole Foods. One stated that he had never been to a Whole Foods store before the editorial was published, but that he had traveled to the one near his house three times that week alone.
The Nationwide Tea Party Coalition, a broad coalition of independent and conservative voters, proposed a “buycott” of Whole Foods. The coalition established a pro-Whole Foods 929 website (teacottwholefoods.com), and the website included information about how to show economic and ideological support for Mackey and Whole Foods. St. Louis Tea Party leader Dana Loesch stated that, “Most tea party supporters are not regular customers of Whole Foods, and we want to show our support for Mr. Mackey’s championship of free market health care reforms.” Shortly after establishing the website, facebook groups started appearing with information about individual “buycotts,” and perhaps taking a page from the anti-Whole Foods website, a number of the “buycotters” posted pictures of the receipts from their purchases at Whole Foods.