Monday, August 18, 2008, 10:59 AM

Whole Foods enters the recall crosshairs

Whole Foods' reputation as a leading provider of healthy foods met a stiff challenge this month when it recalled five weeks' worth of beef that allegedly sickened multiple customers. Compounding the problem, Whole Foods acknowledged that its tracking system failed to detect that the tainted beef originated from a source Whole Foods never approved. The company's response thus far includes three hallmarks of a good crisis communications plan.

1. Transparency: Whole Foods made information prominently available to the public on its website. Customers are able to contact the company for more information or leave comments on the Whole Foods blog.

2. Candor: The company acknowledged in an online message that its tracking system failed to flag the tainted beef. Acknowledging mistakes like this can be the toughest part of communicating in a crisis. Instinct tells us to avoid embarrassment. But the acknowledgement was necessary for three reasons: 1.) Whole Foods had to be honest with the public, 2.) honesty generally builds credibility with the press, and 3.) the public now knows that the weak link is identified and fixable.

3. Accuracy: Whole Foods sought to correct inaccurate statements in the press. Wisely, Whole Foods didn't blame the press for its problems. Doing so would only create the perception that the company had lost sight of what mattered: safe food. Rather, Whole Foods quickly identified the inaccuracies and provided the correct information to the press and the public. Disciplined messaging like this is key.

Granted, the source of the beef - Nebraska Beef Ltd. - has a long history of controversy, and therefore takes some of the flak away from Whole Foods. Nonetheless, Whole Foods commitment to transparency, candor and accuracy has thus far kept a bad news story from spinning beyond the company's control.

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