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I find it interesting that many organizations still believe that the personal brands of their management team (namely their C-suite) and the organization’s corporate brand, are completely separate. In this day and age, the truth is that whether we like it or not, they are both reflective of one another. And in a crisis, especially a crisis that questions the ethics of either the personal or the professional brand, this reality gets amplified.
Whole Foods Market is currently in the process of learning this lesson.
The CEO, the brand and the alleged sex offender
In December 2015, the New York Times reported that one of the founders of the spiritual think tank, the Center for Integral Wisdom, Marc Gafni, is an alleged sex offender. That same article reported that Whole Foods Market’s co-CEO, John Mackey, is a chairman on the executive board of the Center, and a strong admirer of Gafni.
The realization of Mackey’s close relationship with Gafni immediately sparked an onslaught of criticism towards Whole Foods. The criticism went as far as compelling over 100 esteemed rabbis to publish an online petition, addressed directly to Whole Foods, pleading that they sever their ties with Gafni and his organization.
“For decades now, Gafni has behaved in ways that violate every ethical and legal standard known to us; his misdeeds go far beyond what was reported in the New York Times,” reads the petition. “Recognizing we are part of one humanity who must protect one another, we share this statement in order to prevent future harm to those who may be exposed to him, and as a protest against any individuals, organizations, or institutions that support or endorse him as a teacher or leader. Complicity in giving Gafni a platform is a violation of our tradition’s highest ethical and moral standards: “Justice, Justice shall you pursue” and “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.”
An organization’s worst nightmare
Learning that your organization is associated with – to the extent of having leveraged the brand’s well established, international platform to endorse and support – an alleged sex offender, is every organization’s worst nightmare. But unfortunately, these things can happen, and it’s not always a black and white situation – which can make it even more challenging to manage. However, in this particular case, the situation seems to be more black than it is white.
When a woman came forth stating that Gafni had sexually assaulted her over an extended period of nine months when she was just 13 years old, Gafni tried to excuse his actions by publicly stating that “She was 14 going on 35, and I never forced her.”
So with a disgraceful statement directly from the alleged offender, and with news articles affiliating the Whole Foods name with this scandal, along with a petition pleading with the organization to sever their ties with Gafni, what was Whole Foods to do? What would you do if your organization was found in this troubling position?
Whole Foods Market’s response to the controversy
Four days after the New York Times article was published, Mackey removed a series of videos that had been published to his Whole Foods blog and replaced them with the following message:
“Editor’s Note: Post updated on Dec. 29, 2015.
From Co-CEO John Mackey:
My involvement with Marc Gafni and the Center for Integral Wisdom is conducted strictly in my personal life and does not represent an endorsement or support for either Mr. Gafni or the Center for Integral Wisdom by Whole Foods Market. With that said, I have decided to remove the video interviews I participated in with Mr Gafni, and am doing so to be consistent with the position that this is indeed strictly a personal relationship. All of them can still be found on the Center for Integral Wisdom site.” (A link to the Center’s website was included in this statement)
What’s wrong with this crisis management approach?
For starters, the statement was completely devoid of compassion or any sense of regret at the affiliation or, at the very least, the situation at-hand.
Secondly, the fact that Mackey himself published this statement, rather than it having been published by the organization, didn’t help Whole Foods disassociate itself from the controversy at all. Had the organization published the statement, it would have had a better chance at being effective. But instead, let’s examine what this statement looks like, coming from Mackey:
Mackey used the Whole Foods website to publish a statement on behalf of himself, stating that his relationship with Gafni does not reflect upon the Whole Foods brand. Do you see the disconnect? The three are entirely linked together within this statement, which completely contradicts the statement itself. This message would have been much more compelling and believable had the statement been made by the brand, rather than by Mackey. It also would have had more of a chance at satisfying the public’s expectation that Whole Foods should release a statement. Instead, the brand is still under scrutiny for not having done so yet.
And while there is such thing as having personal relationships that do not overlap or reflect on the organization for which you work, there are two factors that play into this not being the case for Whole Foods in this particular situation:
- Mackey is a co-founder of Whole Foods, not just an employee. Therefore, his personal moral and ethical choices are, at least in part, a reflection on his organization; and
- When you openly choose to have a relationship with an alleged sex offender who has willingly admitted to having had sexual relations with a young girl, your character will be judged. And like it or not, as co-CEO, that judgment inevitably reflects upon the organization you represent.
But, in my opinion, the statement’s biggest failure was the inclusion of the link to Gafni’s organization’s website where the videos can still be found. Providing a link-back to another website is a sign of endorsement – and a powerful one at that, to both the website’s viewers (i.e.: Whole Foods’s stakeholders) and to Google. Whether Whole Foods realizes it or not, this link-back is a show of endorsement and support. It also gives the message that, if Mackey didn’t need to remove the videos, he wouldn’t have.
While, to my understanding, Whole Foods has reactively sent a version of this message to some of its stakeholders in response to inquiries, this is the only proactive statement that has so far been issued since the news broke in December. It’s a statement of mixed messages, with actions that speak far louder than the words it contains.
Recommended next steps for Whole Foods Market
Either Whole Foods supports Gafni, and thus his organization, or they don’t. But they need to come out with a strong statement that defines their position – and follow that statement up with actions that support it. If they don’t support Gafni or his affiliations, then they need to sever all ties – or at the very least, refrain from any public associations with Gafni and his Center – and stop sending out contradicting messages. For example, they should remove their name from the listed “Premium Sponsors” of the Center’s Success Summit.
If they do choose to support Gafni, well, then they should continue to remain silent on the subject, as the consequences of remaining silent at this point would be far less severe than coming out and declaring support.
A confidential tip revealed that Whole Foods will be releasing a statement by the end of the month. While I’m interested to see what their statement will be, it’s just as troubling to think that it’s taking the organization weeks to address the situation after they’ve made the internal decision to do so. That’s of course assuming that the confidential tip is in fact accurate. Time will tell.
As Nancy Levine mentioned in her Epic Times article, this controversy comes at a time when the world is fighting to spread awareness and to change the culture of staying silent or continuing to endorse or maintain relationships with sex offenders. Timing is everything, and although there is never a good time to be associated with a scandal of this sort, it seems that now (and hopefully moving forward, for society’s sake) will be even more of a harmful time to find your organization in such a situation.
What do you think about this story?
This type of issue is a challenging situation to have to face. What do you think about Whole Foods’s actions and choice of response to this issue?
Author of Crisis Ready: Building an Invincible Brand in an Uncertain World, Melissa Agnes is a leading authority on crisis preparedness, reputation management, and brand protection. Agnes is a coveted keynote speaker, commentator, and advisor to some of today’s leading organizations faced with the greatest risks. Learn more about Melissa and her work here.