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«13TH INTERNATIONAL PUBLIC RELATIONS RESEARCH CONFERENCE “Ethical Issues for Public Relations Practice in a Multicultural World” Holiday Inn ...»

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Whole Foods and Mackey respond to the crisis Almost as soon as the editorial appeared, the company Whole Foods attempted to put some distance between itself and the positions taken by Mackey in the editorial. On August 13 the company posted a response to the editorial on its website (“Our Leadership’s Response,” 2009, August 13). In it the company thanked its customers and shareholders for expressing their opinions about the position taken by Mackey. It also reiterated that the company provided health insurance for the 89 percent of Whole Foods employees who work 30 or more hours a week. The statement concluded by recognizing the many different opinions about healthcare reform shared by customers and employees alike.

The company also created a Healthcare Reform section in the forum section of its company website where individuals were allowed to post their thoughts about the editorial and other related topics. The company adhered to its policy of not censoring comments unless they included profanity or personal attacks. This resulted in numerous “Boycott Whole Foods” threads that were started and which appeared on the website. The next day Mackey posted his rationale for writing the editorial (2009, August 14), and the full unedited version of the editorial.

He also allowed for readers to post comments in response to his editorial. Once again, all comments—positive and negative—were included as long as they did not include profanity or personal attacks.

After staying out of the media spotlight for a period, Mackey addressed the controversy, once again choosing the editorial section of The Wall Street Journal to discuss the reaction to the editorial and his views of capitalism. In an interview with Stephen Moore (2009, October 3), Mackey expressed surprise at the reaction to the editorial stating, “I think a lot of people who got angry haven’t read what I actually wrote.” He also suggested that at least some of the reaction was either caused by or supported by labor unions, which have tried repeatedly and unsuccessfully to unionize Whole Foods. In another interview with Reason magazine, a magazine of “free markets and free minds,” Mackey pointed out that the CEO of Safeway had written an editorial advocating market-based approaches to healthcare reform which had not resulted in any negative publicity. Mackey also described his political philosophy as one that believes in markets, individual empowerment, and individual choice.

Perhaps the coda to the controversy occurred in December when Mackey stepped down as chairman of the board of Whole Markets, while retaining the title of CEO. Mackey (2009, 24 December) announced his decision to step aside on his CEO blog, stating the Whole Foods “has been targeted by corporate governance activists for several years now seeking a separation of these roles. The members of the Board and E-Team tried to talk me out of giving up the title;

however, I don’t believe it is in the best interest of our company or our stakeholders to devote any more time or resources to fight this misperception over a title any longer…” Mackey had not commented again on the editorial publically until a recent profile appeared in the New Yorker (Paumgarten, 2010). In that article Mackey called the level of vitriol 930 aimed at him and his company “left-wing McCarthyism.” Mackey also stated that “people had an idea in their minds about the way Whole Foods was. So when I articulated a capitalistic interpretation of what needed to be done in health care, that was disappointing to some people” (p. 25).

“But I thought you thought…” The quote in the New Yorker article goes to the heart of the situation surrounding Mackey’s editorial and how differently many people viewed Mackey and his company prior to the editorial and how drastically those views changed once the editorial was published.

Coorientation theory can provide guidance here (McLeod & Chafee, 1973; Pearson, 1989). This theory suggests that an important part of communication involves the orienting process that two parties engage in within their shared communication environment. Agreement, accuracy, and congruency are important factors that influence communication effectiveness that environment.

Agreement is defined as a measure of similarity in attitudes toward an object or behavior.

In this case, agreement would entail both parties (i.e., Mackey, Whole Foods customers) holding similar attitudes toward healthcare reform. Accuracy is a measure of how well one group can predict the attitudes and beliefs of another group. Here we might expect that Mackey would be able to accurately identify how his customers would feel about healthcare reform and likewise that Whole Foods customers would be able to accurately predict Mackey’s attitude toward healthcare reform. Finally, congruency is the degree to which one group’s attitudes predict the attitudes they perceive the other group holding. Here, we would expect the actual attitudes toward healthcare reform of the Whole Foods customers to predict the attitudes they perceived Mackey to hold and vice versa. And, of course, effective communication is more likely to occur when agreement, accuracy, and congruency are high between both parties.

One way top measure whether agreement, accuracy, and congruency between Mackey and the customer base of Whole Foods is to look at comments left by self-identified shoppers.

Evidence of a low level of agreement would be seen in comments in which the commenter explicitly or implicitly rejects the healthcare reforms proposed by Mackey. Evidence of a low level of accuracy would be seen in comments where the individual expresses surprise, anger, or frustration at the position taken by Mackey. Evidence of a low level of congruency would be found in situations where the actual attitude toward healthcare reform by a customer was different than how he or she perceived Mackey’s position to be.

Mackey’s position on markets and healthcare reform The first thing that is needed in any coorientation analysis is a description of Mackey’s position toward healthcare reform. In addition to the editorial itself (see Appendix for all eight proposals), there are a number of other cues to Mackey’s position on healthcare and markets available in public comments in which Mackey has openly referred to his appreciation of free market advocates, such as Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, and Ludwig von Mises.

For example, in Mackey’s (2009) audiobook about the power of conscious capitalism, he begins with a 10-minute discussion of how capitalism defeated socialism. In the New Yorker article, Mackey also stated, “Whole Foods itself is a market-based solution. We’re a corporation. We are in capitalism. We have to compete with Safeway and Wal-Mart and Kroger and Wegmans and Trader Joe’s. What’s odd about it is that that’s what we’ve always been. We’re not a co-op” (Paumgarten, 2010, January 4; emphasis ours). So, it is clear that Mackey’s position is one that places faith in capitalism and market-based solutions to problems, a position that was also clear in the editorial itself.

931 Commenters who did not like Mackey’s editorial The blog post by Mackey that contained the original unedited editorial resulted in 4,547 comments. Similarly, many of the blog posts and news articles or commentaries about the editorial resulted in comments from readers.

It was very easy to identify posters who expressed surprise and astonishment that the company’s leader would not support universal healthcare. For example, a commenter named Cindy Lou Ferris wrote, “I have been a loyal Whole Foods shopper for more than 10 years. I read your article in the Wall Street Journal and can assure you Whole Foods will receive no further business from me or my family. I love your store but not more than I love my country.

You are out of touch with the people who made your store popular and your article proves this point.” Similarly, a commenter named Bob Dobolina echoed the sense of anger and disillusionment at the positions held by Mackey, “Tort reform, interstate commerce so Big Insurance can nationalize their local monopolies. You may as well have thrown in ending the “death tax” as well. These are all standard Republican talking points. Your attitude–that the sick have no intrinsic right to health care–is both tight-fisted and self-serving. You’ve got yours so what do you care, right? If we’re arrested and we can’t afford an attorney, the state provides one. If we’re dying and we can’t afford doctor, as far as you’re concerned, tough luck. Nice try, but even with the new headline, it’s the same vile, soulless garbage. You’ve lost my business.” Finally, a commenter named Greg Sullivan stated, “Your op/ed piece restates the morally bankrupt stance of those who are most fortunate and don’t want thier [sic] piece of the pie to be smaller. It is repugnant to me, and if you think the personal opinion of a CEO doesn’t reflect on the corporation then you are naive.” These comments are representative of a large portion of the total left both in response to Mackey’s blog post and to other articles. Over and over commenters identified themselves as shoppers (or former shoppers) at Whole Foods Market, who disagreed with Mackey’s position in the editorial and who were upset that the CEO of a company they patronized would hold positions antithetical to their own.

Commenters who liked Mackey’s editorial Conversely, a wide range of commenters noted that they agreed with Mackey’s position, and claimed they would shop more at the store. For example, a commenter named Geoffrey Douglas said, “I am a big new fan of Whole Foods. Thank you Mr. Mackey for standing up for what is right. I will shop there and recommend your stores to my friends as much as possible.” Another commenter stated “Good grief, a common sense approach to a problem and you are being vilified and boycotted. I don’t understand how anyone could find anything offensive in your Wall Street Journal op-ed. I intend to shop even more frequently at Whole Foods as a result of your op-ed piece.” Finally, commenter Edward Little said, “Your sound reasoning and clear commentary on health reform has won you a new customer for life–as long as you or a likeminded individual are CEO. While I note the distinction between personal views and corporate policy, I appreciate your courage in taking a stand on a controversial subject.” One comment (Geoffrey Douglas, 2009, August 14) stated the poster was a new fan of Whole Foods due to Mackey standing up for what he believed in and supporting an American cause. He stated his support would go beyond just himself but to his family and friends as well. Paul Gordon (2009, August 20) said he had never shopped at Whole Foods before hoped the boycotters would 932 continue on and be replaced by customers with common sense and honesty. Both of these posts represent people, who before the article were not aware of Whole Foods or John Mackey, but were attracted to the store because of a desire to support his ideals.

Surprisingly, a few of the comments based Whole Foods’ success purely on the ideology of Mackey and not his managerial skills or external factors. Robyn (2009, August 14) stated she had not heard of Mackey or Whole Foods before she opened the Wall Street Journal and read the op-ed piece, but attributed the success of Whole Foods to Mackey’s view. Others who were not aware of Mackey beforehand appreciated his candid message and willingness to stand up despite knowing how unpopular it might be with consumers. Edward Little (2009, August 14) never stated his intention to shop at or even visit a Whole Foods, but did indicate his impression of Mackey was favorable because of his stance on a controversial issue.

So, in the same way there were many people who became agitated and agonized at Mackey’s editorial, there were also many comments from people who claimed to become active in supporting Whole Foods based on the positions taken in the editorial. While the endpoint was completely opposite to those who did not like the editorial, the logic used was the same: the editorial gave a new light on what the company stood for because its CEO had published an editorial.


For those who did not like the editorial, the overall impression of the comments seems to be summed up by those who were angry at a man for stating his opinion and who felt genuinely betrayed by a store they held in high esteem and felt like incorporated their core values. For those who liked the editorial, they often seemed angry at a subset of the population who do not seem to share their own personal core values and a general distrust for the healthcare bill and government for proposing it. Some comments represented people who had never heard of John Mackey before the piece ran in the Wall Street Journal, but were able to form relatively positive opinions about both him and the store he helped to create.

One theme running throughout the comments was based upon Mackey’s First Amendment right and ability to engage the public. Some felt it was hypocritical to boycott Whole Foods based upon Mackey’s comments because the same values boycotters looked up to were being utilized in opposition to their views. However, many boycotters, perhaps subconsciously, acknowledged the alleged hypocrisy and articulated that just as it was Mackey’s right to express his opinions it was their right to shop at businesses that supported their own.

Many of the same arguments were used by buycotters to justify why Whole Foods would be receiving their support, however there appeared to be little recognition that either side was using the same arguments.

Finally, whether or not any of commentators actually follow through on what they said or expressed may never be known. But as some people indicated, whether in the positive or negative, Mackey energized new and existing customers, angered old ones, and created dialogue among groups across the country. Mackey has a fiduciary duty to Whole Foods, its employees, and its customers, but he also felt a need to answer a call for debate over healthcare. His role as CEO and his role as a private citizen, engaged in civic participation, created a public relations crisis but ultimately he may have accomplished what he set out to achieve.

933 What should practitioners think?

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