Media Training, Whole Foods, Healthcare Reform & Cow Poop

The most fundamental rule of media training that I discuss with every executive is this: “If you could attach a dollar to every word that comes out of your mouth, would you make money or lose money?”

That brings us to Whole Foods and the much publicized letter to the editor in the Wall Street Journal, about healthcare reform.

… and in just a bit, we’ll introduce you to new media training concepts for this Austin based company, which include folk-style comparisons to bees, hunting dogs and cow poop.

CEO John Mackey laid out 8 steps that he thinks would help solve the healthcare problems in the U.S. His letter inspired a firestorm of debate, as well as calls for boycotts and a FaceBook page dedicated to the boycott.

On Whole Foods own website there is an active forums section discussing Mackey’s letter, with more than 1,800 discussions on healthcare reform and more than 13,000 posts.

So if we posed the question to Mackey before he wrote the letter; if we posed the question to Mackey after writing the letter; if you posed the question to your CEO, does a letter to the editor like this cause a company to make money or lose money? Is such a letter good or bad for business? Does it cost you sales?

In this case, the answer may be that it is a wash. There is an enormous amount of chatter in the media and on the web about Whole Foods, but the chatter seems equal to the rest of the chatter about the healthcare debate. And while some openly profess that they will not shop at Whole Foods, we can’t quantify how many of them were previous customers, nor can we quantify how many new customers will go to Whole Foods because they agree with the CEO’s point.

But here are 2 things that bother me about this entire issue from a media relations and media training point of view.

1) First, as the media have made inquiries about the letter to Whole Foods, the media relations department has been saying that Mackey wrote his letter as a private citizen and not as the head of Whole Foods. In Texas lingo, where Whole Foods is based, that dog don’t hunt. When you are the co-founder and the CEO of a company, when you use your company’s health care plan as an example in your letter to the editor, when you mention your company by name several times and when your letter discusses the importance of eating healthy food as sold in your stores, there is no separating the man from the business. This was clearly a letter from the CEO of Whole Foods. Meanwhile, the Whole Foods online press room is void of any mention of this national story, although their own online forum is abuzz. Apparently the Whole Foods media relations department is running around like a free range chicken with its head cut off. Trying to separate the writer/CEO from the company he co-founded is pure bull.

2) The second problem is that if you stir up a hornet’s nest ya’ gonna get stung. Mackey makes some strong arguments for his position on healthcare reform. The problem is he stirs the hornet’s nest in his opening paragraphs as he compares the Obama plan to socialism, then he kicks the hornet’s nest one more time for good measure at the end when he gets into a debate of whether “healthcare is an intrinsic right” and whether the rights for “healthcare, food or shelter” are part of the U.S. Constitution.

Had Mackey made his points as, “8 things to consider in the healthcare debate,” there would be little or no firestorm and the 8 points likely would have contained no fuel to ignite calls for boycotts.

I can empathize with Mackey because I can be harsh in what I say and what I write. But you are the CEO and you had to realize there would be consequences. The question is, financially, was it a calculated move and did you even care? We’ll find out as we watch your sales and your stock over the next quarter.

I can empathize with the media relations department because I’ve been put in a fix a time or two by CEO’s who fly off at the mouth. But do you even believe your own B.S.? I don’t think you do? Besides, cow manure is best used as an organic fertilizer and not as a media statement.

Overall, in this case, Whole Foods has stepped in it and the stench will linger on their boots for some time.

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Crisis Communications, Michael Jackson & Your Executives

I’ve been wanting to share these thoughts with you since the story first broke about the death of Michael Jackson, but I thought some may consider it insensitive or overtly opportunistic too close to his death. But now that some time has passed, let’s examine what we, as communicators, can learn from the death of Michael Jackson.

The first thing I would ask is whether a Michael Jackson mentality exists in your company and among your executives?

If you consider Michael Jackson, he provided great service to his customers… in other words, his fans loved his music and shows.

At the same time, Michael Jackson did many good works, traveling the world and giving away millions of dollars to charities, especially for children.

But then, there is the negative. The suspicions about whether he had inappropriate relations with children haunts him to this day.

These 2 sides of Michael Jackson polarized audiences.

Furthermore, the death of Michael Jackson, the investigation and the massive quantity of drugs found in his home, indicates that he had a big problem. I would even go so far to say that his advisors probably knew about his dangerous drug addictions and they failed to speak up, take action and do something about it.

I see this very same behavior everyday in corporations, government agencies and non-profit organizations.

Many of you work in organizations that have a loyal customer base and give back to the community, but there are those in your organization that simultaneously do things that raise suspicion… sometimes to internal parties; sometimes to the suspicion of the public.

It is a classic case in which you know that someone needs to tell the emperor that he has no clothes, but no one will.

I’ve seen those in the C-suite lose their temper so outrageously, in meetings, to the point that everyone is afraid to speak up, because no one want to be reamed out next. I’ve known of non-profit executives who own businesses or property on the side and have suspicious dealings with their own non-profit, and they have fired those who have questioned those dealings. In the world of government, there are constantly questionable relationships with vendors.

In the world of public relations, media relations and crisis communications, these are classic smoldering crises.

They also put you in the awkward situation of even compromising your own ethics if you fail to speak up. Yet, you also know that if you do speak up, you could jeopardize your own career and possibly get fired.

So what do you do? My first suggestion is that if you can’t fix the problem, you should start looking for a new job. I’ve challenged my bosses before and faced repercussions. When I couldn’t fix it internally, I decided to change jobs. I knew that eventually the company would pay the price for their bad ethics and misguided deeds. My goal was to be long gone so I wouldn’t be tainted by those bad deeds. After leaving I was happier and I always got a significant raise in salary.

If you do find yourself trapped between bad executive behavior and no prospects for a new job, realize that you, as the communicator, may eventually have your good name and reputation smeared when the scandal breaks, affecting your own future.

Does a Michael Jackson mentality exist where you work? If it does, your crisis communications plan may be need of a serious rewrite. Before you begin the rewrite, consider conducting a full blown vulnerability assessment so you can include all of the smoldering crisis that exists. Chances are there are other people in your organization who know of other misdeeds that you may not know of. Many crisis communications plans are flawed because they are only made to deal with a sudden crisis.

Don’t delay. Act now. Move it to the top of your priority list. It’s only a matter of time before your smoldering crisis ignites and everything goes up in flames.

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H1N1 Swine Flu Crisis Communications Plans – Mexico Needs Them

My wife, 2 daughters and I went on our annual scuba diving trip to Cozumel, Mexico, to find the island is virtually deserted because tourists are afraid they’ll get the Swine Flu, also known as H1N1.

Crisis Communications is needed and here is why…

One tourism official tells me it is worse than the last 5 hurricanes combined.

So what are our crisis communications lessons?

Some may say Mexico is the victim of the old adage that, “no good deed goes unpunished.” I would say that is only partially true.

To Mexico’s credit, it did alert the world early of a possible Pandemic, to which the World Health Organization responded with a bevy of travel advisories. Those advisories indicated it would be a risk for people to travel by cruise ship to islands such as Cozumel. The cruise companies responded by canceling most of their trips to the island.

Experts applaud Mexico, indicating this is the first time Mexico actively engaged in such crisis response and crisis communications. And for this, some would say the drop in tourism is their punishment for the good deed of being proactive.

In the world of public relations and crisis communications, this lack of tourism amounts to a lack of crisis communications plans and skills by the tourism industry and the individual tourism destinations.

For example, when we arrived in Cozumel on a flight only three-quarters filled, we were greeted by a sign in the airport that says, “there have been zero cases of Swine Flu on the island of Cozumel.”

Well this was news to me. My airline never told me this. Travelocity, with whom I booked my trip, never told me this. My resort never told me this. The airline, the travel agency and the resort all should have a formal, well written crisis communications plan with instructions on how to communicate this critical information. Each failed to communicate with me.

Crisis communications is about keeping people safe and protecting the revenue of your organization. Swine Flu has taken a huge financial toll on Mexican tourism destinations. Tourism officials have invited tourists to return, but I’ve seen no extraordinary campaign to undue the Swine Flu stigma.

And if you’d like to look at the facts, to date, Mexico has reported 10-thousand cases and 117 deaths while the U.S. has reported 33-thousand cases and 170 deaths.

What lesson is there in this for you? Don’t depend upon others to do your crisis communications for you. If you want true crisis communications, it needs to come from your crisis communications plan. And the midst of a crisis is the worse time to plan for or write communications for a crisis. The best time to do it is on a clear sunny day when emotions are low, pressure is low, and you have clarity of logic.

Swine flu could still become an issue for your organization later this year. The best time to prepare is now.

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