A Whole-ly Underwhelming Response

By Jason Menard

Hindsight may be 20/20, but when it comes to businesses and social media, a little foresight can help nip a lot of problems in the bud. It’s safe to say that Whole Foods’ whole-ly underwhelming response to an ex-employee’s combustible resignation letter suggests that when looking at the potential impact of this letter, the company’s eyes were firmly shut.

One of the biggest challenges companies face in today’s electronically dominated communications world is determining how great of a response they should make to challenges to their brand. You don’t want to raze the landscape to get rid of one small pest. Conversely, you don’t want to approach Mothra with a flyswatter.

Whole Foods made the mistake of underestimating both the societal interest and potential damage that the leak of aTorontoemployee’s resignation letter could have. And now the company may be forced to eat organically raised crow and undertake some serious damage control.

The letter, with names redacted, can be found here. The company’s initial response has been limited to a generic “We disagree… best of luck in his future endeavours,” paint-by-numbers press response.

Perhaps Whole Foods looked at the letter, which was sent to the entire company, and thought the fact the author comes across as an obnoxious, self-righteous, immature ass with a limited understanding of the concept of libel and slander, would be condemnation enough. And while his writing – especially the completely unnecessary personal attacks — does serve to greatly damage his integrity (and, yes, tardiness matters) it doesn’t completely undermine his comments.

Whole Foods needs is customers to buy into the ideal more than most stores. When you’re promoting yourself as organic, eco-friendly, or environmentally sensitive, an increased burden of proof falls on you, as a corporation, to maintain your clientele’s trust. Yes, you will have your ardent supporters, but there are many more who are skeptical about the benefits of organic products – this letter won’t alleviate their concerns.

And this is coming from an insider, which makes it more damaging. Sure, it’s an insider with a stunning lack of understanding about business in general, but some of the points are cause for concern. For example, the accusations of wasting food and other resources would seem to run counter to Whole Foods’ image. So a terse, “we disagree” is not sufficient.

Take a moment to explain what programs are in place to encourage a greener environment; or acknowledge the food waste (it is part of the business) and perhaps propose looking at local food banks as an option. Maybe call up the folks at Domino’s and ask why they went to such great lengths to repair the damage caused by a couple of employees from Conover, NC. Domino’s didn’t stick their head in the sand and they’ve come out of a potentially damaging situation better for it.

As a business, you can deal with a certain amount of negativity. There will always be customers who feel their experience was less than satisfactory; there will always be employees – especially when you’re dealing with kids in their first jobs – who refuse to accept responsibility for their actions; and if you have social media sites, you’ll always have people making comments about your brand that you won’t like.

Your response matters. Be respectful, be courteous, and answer what you can to the best of your ability. Don’t engage in a pissing match and don’t sink to their level (for example, did this Whole Foods employee really gain anything from his swearing and puerile attempts at humour? We’ve discussed this before. You are what you write – especially to potential future employers). Customers don’t expect perfection, but in today’s environment they expect answers and they expect honesty. As a company, you love the emotional investment and increased attachment that social media fosters amongst the fans of your brands. That increased engagement is paid for, however, by remaining true to and honest with your fans.

Although we’re talking about one employee, we’re not making a mountain out of a molehill. In fact, the mountain was always there — Whole Foods’ just looked at it with the wrong perspective. And now they’re faced with an uphill climb filled with obstacles raised by not taking this one employee’s comments – or the interest they would foster – seriously.

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