Whole Foods Serves Some Crisis Management Lessons

August 11, 2011 at 11:39 am 1 comment

If you think you’re immune to a crisis just because you’re not the biggest player around and you try to do things right, take a look at the controversy Whole Foods is dealing with. 

The store is well-known for having ethnic and special foods (disclosure: I shop there because it has products that meet some personal dietary needs). On its shelves are halal products, which are foods that meet Islamic dietary laws. When the company decided to promote those products to people who celebrate Ramadan, a period during which Muslims engage in rituals, including dietary practices, designed to encourage patience, spirituality, humility and submissiveness to God (Muslim friends – jump in here if my description is inaccurate), an employee apparently wrote an email to his bosses questioning the idea.

I’m not sure how those goals can be bad, but apparently the employee was afraid that right-wing activists might have a problem with promoting something associated with Islam. His email somehow made it into the Houston Press  and on to Twitter, where it was taken as an official statement that the company was backing away from the promotion and – boom – Whole Foods found itself in crisis mode. 

Libba Letton, a spokeswoman for Whole Foods, Tuesday told me the company became aware of the issue because it monitors its online presence and because of the tweets.

“Folks brought it to our attention and we immediately sat down and figured out what happened,” she said. They quickly tweeted that the promotion was still on and reached out to those who had tweeted to tell them the promotion was not being cancelled. Libba and her colleagues also started calling newspapers where the story appeared. As the word spread, they began fielding calls from the media.

The fast reaction quelled the crisis before it got legs. It was still a story, but the company’s response circulated so quickly that the story was the Whole Foods’ plans to continue the promotion despite the rumor. The company’s blog continues to include lots of information about preparing for the holiday. The rapid response kept the issue from hurting Whole Foods, but Libba thinks it’ll be kept alive for a while by those who only listened to the initial, erroneous reports.

“It’s inconvenient,” she said. “We’ll have to continue to educate people about it on individual levels.”  

A crisis is anything that threatens an organizations reputation and its viability as a business. This certainly threatened Whole Foods’ reputation, but because of the company’s quick response, the damage was minimal.  There are lessons here for the rest of us:

  1. You will have a crisis.
  2. You need to be ready. Libba adds that you must act immediately. “Social media is so much faster than anything else,” she says.
  3. Assume that anything in writing – email, memos, correspondence – will wind up public, even (maybe especially) if marked “confidential.” Keep that in mind before you send counsel or opinions by email or paper memo.
  4. Social media is a two-edged sword. You must stay on top of what others are saying about your business. Your public relations team, whether internal or external, will have tools to help with that. Your PR team also can make sure that you’re ready when a crisis does hit.
  5. (Maybe 4A) There’s nothing wrong with asking colleagues and members of your network to let you know if they see or hear anything about your company. Part of Whole Foods’ early warning system was tweets and calls from people who saw the original postings.

Public relations practitioners are experts in social media and its role in creating and quelling crises. If you and your PR counselor haven’t discussed situations like the one that hit Whole Foods lately, use this column as a conversation starter. And if you need some crisis prevention and management advice, feel free to contact me.

Finally, to our Muslim friends: “Ramadan Mubarak.”

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Entry filed under: crisis communications, Dealing with social media, Media Relations, reputation. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

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1 Comment

  • 1. rtyecript  |  August 24, 2011 at 2:41 pm

    I really liked the article, and the very cool blog


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