business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kate McMahon

Content Guy’s Note: Kate’s BlogBeat is a new ingredient in the MorningNewsBeat stew – a regular look at what people are talking about on the Internet, and how it impacts the conduct of business by retailers and manufacturers.

As any parent raising kids in today’s cyber-era will tell you, the first time an 11-year-old boy sends out an offensive or idiotic email he gets a reprimand. The second time, you take his laptop away.

Perhaps Whole Foods should consider revoking laptop privileges for CEO John Mackey, who ignited a firestorm of controversy with an op-ed piece on health care reform he wrote for the Wall Street Journal on August 11th.

Since then, a movement to boycott Whole Foods has lit up the blogosphere, with more than 20,000 postings on Whole Foods’ own website alone and thousands more on countless other forums debating health care, free speech, and pitting liberals vs. conservatives on topics ranging from organics to obesity.

Mackey is no stranger to Internet controversy, having already been reprimanded for posting anonymous web comments that criticized then-rival Wild Oats before Whole Foods purchased the company.

Which begs the question: What was he thinking? Particularly when he had to know what the consequences would be?

There’s no shortage of irony here. For starters, Whole Foods is favored by well-educated progressives, just the group Mackey infuriated. One blogger compared his piece to “the CEO of John Deere coming out with an op-ed supporting gay marriage.”

And Whole Foods is without doubt one of the nation’s most innovative leaders in utilizing social networking to connect with its customers. The company’s main Twitter account has about 1.2 million followers, and it has 150 more Twitter accounts for local stores and departments. It also has more than 123,000 followers on Facebook, multiple forums on its website and a presence on Flickr.

Here’s the top line on the internet reaction to Mackey’s piece:

• A Facebook page entitled Boycott Whole Foods now boasts 28,392 members, adding about 1,000 members a day this past week.

• A counter offensive on Facebook, Support Whole Foods and Free Speech, lists 3,380 members. (Full disclosure: As your MNB blog correspondent, I follow both groups.)

• A “buzz chart” from the YouGov Brand Index, which tracks daily consumer perception of brands, showed consumer opinion toward Whole Foods has taken a major hit since the controversy erupted. The company’s stock price, however, was up yesterday to close at $29.22.

• The health care reform forum on the Whole Foods company website includes a whopping 18,134 posts on 118 “pages” on the subject.

• The official Whole Foods website response delicately distancing the company from Mackey’s “personal” opinion has 1,929 comments.

• Mackey’s response to the backlash on his “CEO blog” elicited 3,087 comments.

Yes, there is some intelligent discourse on health care policy in the blogs. But much of it has deteriorated into stereo-typical liberal/conservative bashing, with snotty asides spread equally between the “champagne socialists” and “right-wing teabaggers.” And as is always the case with the internet, it is largely uncensored.

Some may think that this is ample reason for why their companies should stay away from social networking, but that’s not the lesson that should be learned. Social networking goes on with you or without you, if not on your site then on a blog. What you have to do is know precisely what you are doing when you engage in these kinds of discussions...know your customer, know the potential repercussions of staking out a position, and know that in today’s world, the dialogue is constant, sometimes inflammatory, and always able to both reveal and reinforce the connections between shoppers and retailers.

Whole Foods has excelled at that connection up until this misstep by Mackey, and the company appears to be working its way through the backlash, without censoring the dialogue.

But since 11-year-old boys and some corporate CEOs can be rather dense, can someone please take John Mackey’s laptop away, at least for a week?

(BTW: Thanks to all of the MNB readers who sent me their favorite food blogs. I’m compiling a Best of the Blogs list. If you have one to share, please shoot me an email at
KC's View: