Sorry, You Can't Apologize For The Same Infraction Twice

Whole Foods CEO John Mackey sparked an uprising from his largely progressive customer base in 2009 when he wrote an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal opposing President Obama’s health care reform proposal, commonly known as “ObamaCare.”

After customers began boycotting his stores, he defended himself by writing, “I was asked to write an op-ed piece and I gave my personal opinions…Whole Foods as a company has no official position on the issue.” That’s a ludicrous argument, since it’s doubtful he would have received space in The Journal without his prestigious position.

Mackey didn’t apologize, but his Whole Foods PR representatives did. According to The Washington Post, they “sent letters to customers apologizing for any offense.” 

The story receded from the headlines until last Wednesday, when Mackey resurrected it during an interview on National Public Radio. During that interview, he referred to ObamaCare as “fascism,” defined by Merriam-Webster as a political philosophy that “stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader.”

Mr. Mackey quickly realized he had stepped in it yet again, and said:

“I made a poor word choice to describe our health care system, which I definitely regret…I hope those who are my critics would…not be distracted by the poor use of an emotionally charged word.”


You can listen to Mackey’s comments here:  20130118_me_11

Commentator Michael Kinsley once defined a “gaffe” as occurring when a politician accidentally says something he actually means. In this case, I’m guessing most people will view Mackey’s recent statement as a classic example of the Kinsley Gaffe.

When spokespersons say something carelessly once (depending on the infraction), the public may be willing to overlook their remarks. But when they say the same thing twice, it’s harder to conclude that their apologies are heartfelt. I doubt anyone who received a letter of apology from Whole Foods in 2009 will be particularly willing to forgive Mackey’s latest choice of words.

I acknowledge Mackey’s right to his opinion. And perhaps you share Mackey’s view. But whether he’s right or wrong isn’t the point of this post—it’s whether or not the public will find a second personal and/or corporate “apology” on the same topic to be sincere. I’m guessing they won’t. On some level, it would be more authentic if Mackey just shared his views, Whole Foods stopped apologizing for them (they didn’t this time around), and Mackey stopped offering half-apologies.

Personally, I find Mackey to be wildly off message (he also said climate change is “not necessarily bad” last week), and believe that he’s compromising his company’s corporate communications strategy. At some point, some of Mackey’s most loyal customers may find his continual pokes in the eye to be too much to take.

That’s just my opinion. What’s yours? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.