Thursday, August 20

Politicizing Business: John Mackey And Everyone

There is an interesting little side bar story written by Darryl Ohrt at AdvertisingAge that suggests rethinking the traditional work day at advertising agencies. He says that since the work day for many is all day that maybe office hours ought to change to fit personal preferences.

There is some truth to that. When someone had to chat with fans of an independent movie release at 11 p.m. on Twitter a few weeks back, I decided it might as well be me. It made for more than a few sleepy mornings, mostly because I start early every day. Unlike most creatives, I like to start work before the sun comes up, which also makes it easier for East Coast clients to reach me.

So why not employees? And why not other businesses?

The comments reveal the reality, with some being for it, some against it, and a few who would outright abuse it to the point of violating labor laws as they turn employees into indentured servants (and thus why labor laws exist).

And then there is health care. I caught a few interesting comments being bandied about last night on Twitter by several communication colleagues, suggesting that John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Market, Inc. had lost his marbles.

"Where were his PR advisors?" some asked, despite being the same people who encourage CEOs to write their own blogs, unvetted.

Sure, Mackey is an odd duck. He has been one for a long time. But he's not your typical run-of-the-mill odd duck, which means that his op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on heath care might not be dismissed so readily. The title alone, "The Whole Foods Alternative to ObamaCare," will make a few people cringe, but Mackey has already explained that he didn't write the headline.

The fallout of his op-ed, which simply suggested eight alternatives to government-run health care that ought to be kicked around the Hill, has resulted in all sorts of craziness, including dozens of activist groups calling for a boycott of Whole Foods. There is even a wacky Facebook group that promises to do the same.

Some of the members don't even know why they are boycotting Whole Foods, other than the maligned representations of what Mackey wrote. Some say Mackey said only the rich deserve health care. He never said that. So overall, those members seem mostly concerned about getting media attention so they can say they belong to a group covered by CNN or whatever. Whatever.

There are at least three points to consider in framing up what will become a living case study, with coverage from time to time.

1. Will it become common for everyday people, who generally support the idea of expressing their own opinions online, resort to diatribe every time someone else's opinions differ from their own? And would a reverse boycott include unfriending everyone who joins this group on Facebook?

What happened to open discussion, which seems more productive? Nowadays, people tend to turn off dissent.

2. Are public relations professionals so naive to think that politics and business don't mix? They have always been mixed, and they are increasingly mixed as the federal government has encroached on the private sector.

I may not be a fan of mixing the two in communication, but I do recognize times have changed and the voracity in which executives might talk about politics has changed with it. Ergo, the same people who cheered on executives like Warren Buffet's endorsement of a presidential campaign are the same who now chastise a less politically motivated column on health care reform, written in plain language with some points that ought to be part of the discussion.

3. Are government health care proponents so desperate that they would attempt to hang their hats on an individual who represents no one other than himself? It seems to me, for lack of a better patsy, that some organized political groups are hoping to frame up a debate as health care reform vs. Mackey as a poster child for big business.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Mackey has always marched to his own beat. Sometimes disastrously so. He hardly represents the status quo of business and neither does Whole Foods. As a matter of fact, Whole Foods employees have health benefits.

Whole Foods is not alone. Most businesses are not against health care reform. On the contrary, most businesses want their employees healthy and working. The best of them also want to keep their employees happy or at least motivated, and do so by providing more incentives than unions or government can muster.

The bottom line nowadays is that employer-employee contracts are increasingly regulated by the government, which dictates the hourly wage, benefits, and hours of operation. And, since most of the government's newest regulatory design seems to plan against the exception and not the rule, executives like Mackey will be increasingly forced to speak up, and rightly so. If they do not now, they may not be able to later.



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