Sorry, You Can’t Apologize For The Same Infraction Twice

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on January 21, 2013 – 6:02 AM

Whole Foods CEO John Mackey sparked an uprising from his largely progressive customer base in 2009 when he wrote an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal opposing President Obama’s health care reform proposal, commonly known as “ObamaCare.”

After customers began boycotting his stores, he defended himself by writing, “I was asked to write an op-ed piece and I gave my personal opinions…Whole Foods as a company has no official position on the issue.” That’s a ludicrous argument, since it’s doubtful he would have received space in The Journal without his prestigious position.

Mackey didn’t apologize, but his Whole Foods PR representatives did. According to The Washington Post, they “sent letters to customers apologizing for any offense.” 

The story receded from the headlines until last Wednesday, when Mackey resurrected it during an interview on National Public Radio. During that interview, he referred to ObamaCare as “fascism,” defined by Merriam-Webster as a political philosophy that “stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader.”

Mr. Mackey quickly realized he had stepped in it yet again, and said:

“I made a poor word choice to describe our health care system, which I definitely regret…I hope those who are my critics would…not be distracted by the poor use of an emotionally charged word.”


You can listen to Mackey’s comments here:  20130118_me_11

Commentator Michael Kinsley once defined a “gaffe” as occurring when a politician accidentally says something he actually means. In this case, I’m guessing most people will view Mackey’s recent statement as a classic example of the Kinsley Gaffe.

When spokespersons say something carelessly once (depending on the infraction), the public may be willing to overlook their remarks. But when they say the same thing twice, it’s harder to conclude that their apologies are heartfelt. I doubt anyone who received a letter of apology from Whole Foods in 2009 will be particularly willing to forgive Mackey’s latest choice of words.

I acknowledge Mackey’s right to his opinion. And perhaps you share Mackey’s view. But whether he’s right or wrong isn’t the point of this post—it’s whether or not the public will find a second personal and/or corporate “apology” on the same topic to be sincere. I’m guessing they won’t. On some level, it would be more authentic if Mackey just shared his views, Whole Foods stopped apologizing for them (they didn’t this time around), and Mackey stopped offering half-apologies.

Personally, I find Mackey to be wildly off message (he also said climate change is “not necessarily bad” last week), and believe that he’s compromising his company’s corporate communications strategy. At some point, some of Mackey’s most loyal customers may find his continual pokes in the eye to be too much to take.

That’s just my opinion. What’s yours? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Comments (5)

  1. By Kim M:

    This one bothers me less than the Chik-Fil-A issue, most likely because I’ve always thought Whole Foods to be offensively pretentious and this didn’t really change my already-low opinion of them. However, it once again highlights the problem when the perceived leader of the company either 1) passes off personal beliefs as those of the company (as with CFA); or 2) uses their influence as that leader to make statements that appear to conflict with the core of the company’s mission and strategies. Of course, I found the CFA debacle more offensive because it’s hateful, discriminatory and also disrespectful of their employees. This one was just narcissism and ego rearing their heads and making the guy sound like a jackass (no offense meant to donkeys, of which I’m very fond).

  2. By SG:

    I would have to agree with Mr. Mackey…OBama is shoving laws down our throats whether we like them or not; That’s what a king does. Too bad some people get all bent out of shape for someone having an opinion. Pretty soon Obama will tell us we can’t have opinions either & some people will side with him on that too. I don’t get it…what kind of spell does this man (the king…I mean the president) have on some people?

  3. By Brad Phillips:

    SG –

    I’m curious about something. You wrote that “Obama is shoving laws down our throats whether we like them or not.”

    Can you please give me an example of a law the President has “shoved” down your throat that didn’t follow the constitutional process? And can you really call it being “shoved down your throat” if a law was passed through the legislative branch by duly elected representatives and signed by a duly elected president who heads the executive branch?

    I think what you’re trying to say is, “I disagree with the policies this President and the House are pursuing.”

    Best wishes,

  4. By Art Aiello:

    When we were in the process of hiring a PR firm, one candidate told us of a situation in which they “fired” their client because the CEO refused to stay on message. This could very well be a situation in which the Whole Foods PR firm chooses to capitulate because the CEO doesn’t follow their advice. I think you’re right, Brad, that not only is Mackey all over the place, but he’s foolish to believe that he can separate his opinion from that of the company in a public forum. Your advice is good, too, in that he should simply choose to make it the Whole Foods mantra instead of confusing consumers with his opinion and the perceived corporate culture.

    BTW–SG–what Brad said…

  5. By Brett:

    As a Canadian, I know I am looking on this situation as an outsider, but I really cannot understand the level of animosity that some have towards this President. A President who was democratically elected… twice! But, by some of the vitriol out there you would think that Mr. Obama just staged a coup.

    In fact, I would say that from firearms to health care, he has shown himself to be much more moderateand willing to compromise than people seem to give him credit for. For Mr. Mackey to call the President’s health care reforms “fascism” demonstrates either a poor understanding of the term (private insurance companies will continue to rake in massive profits, proving there is no gov’t takeover) or just nasty politics that do nothing to move the country forward.

    At the end of all that, have to say that I completely agree with your advice Brad. Even for those of us who aren’t CEO’s, it’s good to be mindful of what we say on Facebook/Twitter because like it or not, those opinions have the potential to reflect on our employers. And really, is getting it off your chest worth creating a problem for yourself? I suspect if Mr. Mackey asked himself that question he may have had a different answer in his interview.

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