Owner's or CEO's opinions can affect the bottom line

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If John Mackey were a steam fitter from McKeesport, The Wall Street Journal would not have printed his views on health care reform prominently on the newspaper's op-ed page.

But he isn't.

As the founder and CEO of Whole Foods, Mr. Mackey's opinion that health care -- like food and shelter -- is a service, not a right, and that adults are responsible for causing many of their major health problems was newsworthy.

But then, when backers of President Barack Obama's version of health care reform threatened a boycott of the natural foods grocer over Mr. Mackey's Aug. 11 opinion piece titled, "The Whole Foods Alternative to ObamaCare," Mr. Mackey tried to distance his political views from his company.

The whole incident was a huge marketing mistake, said Andrea Fitting, the CEO of Fitting Group in Pittsburgh, a marketing company that specializes in developing brands.

"If you have convictions, I don't know there is anything wrong with expressing your opinion," Ms. Fitting said. The problem, in her view, is the attempt to separate that opinion from a company so closely associated with the individual.

Business leaders have a First Amendment right to express their opinions, she said, but they have to be prepared for a backlash from people who have the right to disagree. They need to be ready to say, "It's OK with me if you don't want to buy from me if you don't like how I think."

That happens on a regular basis. The Christian Action Coalition targeted AT&T until its foundation stopped donating to Planned Parenthood.

Right-wing talk show host Rush Limbaugh called for a Republican boycott of H.J. Heinz products when Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., the husband of Teresa Heinz, was running as for president against George W. Bush in 2004. Mr. Limbaugh has since found himself paying a price for his own political views: His bid to buy the St. Louis Rams was rejected by the National Football League.

Ron Razete can sympathize.

After he opened his Strip District business Peace Love & Little Donuts this summer, which has the trademarked slogan, "Feed your inner hippie," someone found his blog. The online forum is titled, "As I was saying ...," and it has a subtitle of "Observations and interests from a middle-aged man fighting for truth, justice and the American Way."

Mr. Razete is sticking by his right-wing opinions but he is upset that people are judging his business by his views.

The day that President Obama was inaugurated he wrote, "This crowd will not rest until Homosexuality is mainstream; until the Second Amendment is done away with; until abortion on demand is as common and accepted as going to the dentist; until sexual images and strip clubs line our streets and suburbs; until government education is started in the womb; until disagreement with their political party is 'hate speech' and becomes a crime; until they pass the Fairness Doctrine and rid the country of Conservative talk radio; until they transfer our sovereignty to the UN, etc. etc. etc."

Later, on Facebook, he referred to gays and lesbians as an "immoral minority," a comment he still stands by. He also said he thinks "about 85 percent of America is very misdirected."

Sue Kerr, the author of the Pittsburgh Lesbian Correspondents blog, said it wasn't what he was saying that upset her; she has heard it all before. The problem she has is that Mr. Razete's marketing message doesn't match his political views.

She said it was the whole "peace" and "love" thing that attracted her to the business but she found his political views to be the opposite of the sort of live-and-let-live message that his business seemed to espouse.

Ms. Kerr said that just as it is Mr. Razete's right to say what he thinks, it is her right -- and that of other lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people -- not to buy his confections. She blogged about it but didn't call for a boycott.

Mr. Razete has since taken down his blog. He said he has noticed that some of his early customers haven't been back recently, although the business is new enough he can't judge if the debate had a major impact.

Meanwhile, Mr. Mackey, in his blog, had the same complaint as many newspaper reporters: that he didn't write the inflammatory headline -- it was the work of a copy editor.

But there was enough in the body of his Wall Street Journal piece for proponents of universal health care to disagree with him.

There was his opening quote from Margaret Thatcher -- "The problem with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people's money" -- and statements such as, "Unfortunately many of our health-care problems are self-inflicted."

In his blog he said, "An editor at the Journal rewrote the headline." His suggested headline was "Health Care Reform." He complained the editor's version "led to antagonistic feelings by many."

He added, "I fully realize that there are many opinions on the health-care debate, including inside my own company," and then he welcomed people to comment on his blog.

Comment they did. Some people agreed with him, others said they would never shop at Whole Foods Market ever again.

Bob O'Gara, a professor of advertising and public relations at Point Park University, said the rules for those in business now are the same as they always have been: Comport yourself always as if what you do is going to be on the evening news. "You're representing not only yourself, but the organization for which you work."

His advice is "review everything you are going to put in print. Then ask yourself would you like that message to be put in front of your family and friends and the media of this country."

And even though electronic media, such as blogs, can seem transient, that is not really the case, as Mr. Razete has found out. Even though he has taken down his blog entries, they are still available cached on Google's search engine.


Ann Belser can be contacted at abelser@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1699.


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