The “I’m Sorry” Defense | Whole Foods

Remember the old Steve Martin standup comedy routine where he explained how he was going to handle the fact that he hadn’t filed taxes for a while?  He said he would tell the IRS, “I forgot!”  It was a brilliantly delivered piece of standup comedy and it never failed to get a big laugh.

I would bet Whole Foods CEO John Mackey has seen that bit.  Or at least his lawyers and PR people did.  I’m sure he was advised to distribute a public apology to the company’s stakeholders for his postings against competitors using a pseudonym.  The New York Times updated the story yesterday and my colleague Suzanne Moran blogged about the situation a few days ago.  The SEC is investigating the situation and Whole Foods itself is investigating the blog postings, the company announced.  The CEO’s apology is a step the company is taking to try to salvage a serious tarnishing of the company’s “good guy” image.  Other than being expensive, Whole Foods always has had a halo over it as a grocery store.  Don’t you think of them as environmentally friendly, good to local farmers, and probably even kind to animals?  Now that you know their CEO was using dirty tricks to bash their competitor, don’t you think of them differently now?  I do.

I will be curious to see how the apology plays in the marketplace.  The fact that the company is taking an active approach to dealing with this crisis is smart, in my view.  If there hadn’t been such a swirl around it — and if the SEC hadn’t gotten involved — they might have been able to stamp this out by doing what I call “depriving the story of oxygen.”  It’s a sort of gag order on the spokesperson for as long as it takes for the story to go away.  You have a smart spokesperson — usually the corporate communication person — handle any inquiries.  You provide no interviews.  You do everything in your power to minimize follow-on stories.  Sometimes this is the best way for a company to manage a crisis that reflects on a particular individual rather than on the company.  It can help you keep the corporate brand from taking further blows.  But given the acceleration of this incident, and the SEC’s involvement, the Whole Foods Brand is still at risk so the apology is a smart step that might help them work their way back to being the good guys again.