Unfortunately, when it also includes controversial opinions about healthcare reform – a hot button political issue – and you’re the CEO of Whole Foods, John Mackey, the result is consumer backlash, amplified by the ability for users to congregate on social media sites.
Specifically, after reading the WSJ piece, Whole Foods customers took to Facebook, where they set up the group Boycott Whole Foods, which has attracted tens of thousands of angry customers. Here’s the campaign’s rallying cry:
“John Mackey, CEO and co-founder of Whole Foods wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on August 12, 2009 quoting Margaret Thatcher and suggesting that healthcare is a commodity that only the rich, like him, deserve.
Whole Foods has built its brand with the dollars of deceived progressives. Let them know your money will no longer go to support Whole Foods' anti-union, anti-health insurance reform, right-wing activities.”
In other words, many Whole Foods customers have opinions vastly different than those of Mackey. And, historically, that hasn’t been a problem, as the natural food retailer has expanded rapidly. But in the age of social media, the result of Mackey’s highly visible op-ed was the alienation of many Whole Foods customers as the story and boycott spread virally around the Web.
While your company might not operate on the scale of Whole Foods and you might not have an opportunity to write op-eds in huge national publications, there are a number of important lessons to be learned here.
First and foremost, it’s clear that when you’re the face of your company, offering public opinions on controversial issues is most likely not a good idea. Even if you’ve set up separate personal and business accounts for blogs, Twitter, and other social media channels – as you should - people will associate what you publish with your business and may make judgments based on it. The same goes for your employees, who should be reminded of this and at the least, inform their audience that their views aren’t those of your company.
Moreover, The Whole Foods story is a reminder to think about what’s important to your customers. Clearly, John Mackey wasn’t doing that when he decided to write an op-ed with lines like “how can we say that all people have more of an intrinsic right to health care than they have to food or shelter?” While you might not have Mackey’s platform, even a single tweet or blog post that doesn’t align with your customer’s views could be costly. Thus, the bottom line: stick to the business of your business in your publicly facing social media life.