A lesson in social media management for PR

You may have been watching one of those PR nightmares in progress, this time with healthy food giant Whole Foods?

Whole Foods teamed up with Halal food brand Saffron Road to promote targeted products on their web site as well as some giveaways of coupons and gift certificates on their web site in their first Ramadan marketing campaign. So far so good right? After all why shouldn’t they support a holiday that is celebrated by millions of Americans?

A post on their blog, written by Yvonne Maffel, offered up recipes featuring Saffron Road’s offerings and giving a little background on Ramadan and that she would be giving away coupons and gift cards on her blog, My Halal Kitchen. The feedback on the Whole Foods blog is overall positive and friendly. Couponsare also offered on some other sites, like Zabihah, a guide to finding Halal food and restaurants. Good so far.

Fast Company posted Whole Foods Celebrates, Monetizes Ramadan which pointed out that in-store campaigns weren’t planned yet, but the entire promotion was to be online. Again, comments were largely positive, though there were a few complaints that Whole foods didn’t celebrate Jewish holidays.

Then all hell broke loose
A Houston Press blog post broke with a copy of an internal email to the team in the Southwest region (Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas and Oklahoma). There’s a copy posted here and here’s the inflammatory excerpt.

click to enlarge

Blogger Debbie Schlussel posted “Anti-Israel Whole Foods Wishes You a Happy Ramadan” which jumped all over Whole Foods with claims like, “I received many reports from Whole Foods customers that Israeli olive oil and other products had been removed from the shelves of many Whole Foods, replaced by the Palestinian terrorism olive oil. My reports didn’t stop ignoramuses like Michelle Malkin Fraudkin from blindly urging people to buy goods at jihadist-enabling Whole Foods, merely because its CEO was under fire for opposing Obamacare.
By the way, Debbie’s gone after Whole Foods before, including this gem. “Welcome to Palestinian “Fair Trade”: Olive Oil Sold @ Whole Foods Funds Study @ Anti-Semitic, Pro-HAMAS Universities; Dr. Bronner’s Soap, Too“.

Yikes.

The Huffington post accused Whole Foods of “capitulating to Islamophobes“.

Gawker Said they “Caved to Wingnuts

Twitter posts started popping up to boycott Whole Foods and criticizing them for giving in. (for a campaign they never cancelled.)

Then the story started to turn. Even on Twitter

The Atlantic Wire posted “How Whole Foods Got Accused of Caving to Bigots”. In which they detailed the blowup of the story and NPR posted “Whole Foods: Ramadan Promotion Has Not Been Cancelled“.

TBD posted “Whole Foods infuriates the Internet with halal foods” with probably my favorite comment on the whole thing. “The good news is that if the PC police and the wingnuts all stay home, there will be more room in the parking garage for people who just want to buy halal-certified lemongrass basil chicken in peace.

All in all it’s a mess, and it’s clear that it’s pretty easy to get people all riled up. Me included–until I did a lot of homework and actually talked to Whole Foods. A lot of people haven’t done that and so this keeps going around and around. After all, the Huff Post said it was true…..

For their part, Whole Foods has been transparent and forthcoming. Here’s a screenshot of a few of their posts about the issue. A tweet I sent out this morning was responded to within 45 minutes and they quickly followed up with an email response to my request for information.

What about the Whole Foods PR team?
I emailed Elizabeth Smith, National Media Relations Coordinator for Whole Foods, and asked her: “Was it ever supposed to be more than an online promotion, and has Whole Foods changed the way the individual stores handle Halal or Jewish products in any way in relation to this brouhaha or because of the holiday?

Here’s her response.

Hi Janet –

Thanks for asking; I appreciate the opportunity to clear things up. Yes, the promotion was primarily online. We have not changed this promotion since its launch and will continue to promote this and other upcoming seasonal and holiday products too.

Our company statement addresses it too:
Whole Foods Market is NOT canceling our current halal promotion, which is centered around the timeframe of Ramadan. We invite shoppers seeking out not just halal certified products, but products that also meet our high quality standards to try Saffron Road and other regional offerings in our stores.

We never sent a communication from our headquarters requesting stores take down signs at all. We have 12 different operating regions and one region reacted by sending out directions to promote Halal and not specifically Ramadan after some online negative comments.

We’re excited to be offering high quality halal products for our shoppers and we stand behind them and our promotion of them, just like we do with other seasonal and holiday products.

I hope this helps clarify.

Best,
Elizabeth

They’re listening, responding to news, social mentions and blog posts quickly, getting updates where there needs to be updated information  and being open and honest with their responses.
I say the PR department at Whole Foods did a pretty darn good job. What do you think they could have done differently?

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