With all the buzz about corporate blogging, you would think that executives would at least attempt to adhere to the road rules.
The revelation that Whole Foods CEO John Mackey posted thousands of messages to a Yahoo Finance board under a pseudonym proves that assumption is incorrect. In a front-page story that has spawned hundreds more, The Wall Street Journal exposed Mackey as "Rahodeb," an anagram of his wife Deborah's name, an energetic Whole Foods cheerleader and vehement Wild Oats (the rival Whole Foods declared its intent to acquire) detractor.
In addition to Mackey being accused of attempting to manipulate stocks and mislead investors, there's the less serious, but perhaps equally embarrassing fact that Mackey made himself look ridiculous - praising his haircut, expressing admiration for his own work, and, in the end, exercising terrible judgment in posting anonymously.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I have to admit I am (was?) a Whole Foods fan. Mackey created a feel-good brand that ranked highly alongside other mission-driven brands like Newman's Own and Stonyfield Farm. Its organic products, customer service, and green/ social message won me over.
And part of the allure was Mackey's persona: a maverick, vegan, yoga-practicing CEO. He's provocative, but he portrayed himself as having unassailable integrity.
The incident is disheartening, but maybe there's a silver lining in that it contains lessons worth noting.
Your behavior online should be the same as it is offline: ethical. Don't post anonymously. It's elementary, but Mackey's not the first to break this rule. Wal-Mart got burned when it set up a blog under false pretenses, and several others have demonstrated poor decision making regarding disclosure. Transparency is critical.
Think before you type. Mackey has not only damaged Whole Foods' brand, but there's also speculation that he could be dismissed. Though that may be extreme, there's no doubt he has marred his credibility. He has also jeopardized his own business objectives because his posts have provided the Federal Trade Commission with ammunition in its fight against Whole Foods' acquisition of Wild Oats. There's a lot at stake. Don't risk your reputation.
Crisis Communications 101: When a problem arises, address the issue quickly and sufficiently. According to reports, Mackey's response to being exposed was that he was having fun and his postings sometimes represented his views and sometimes didn't. That's not good enough. Take responsibility for your actions.
This tale shouldn't be interpreted as an excuse to avoid employing new communications technologies. A corporate blog, when written thoughtfully, can be a great way to connect with constituents. In fact, Mackey has a company blog, and when he was posting there - as himself - he was using it well.
New technologies let companies engage with audiences directly, without a filter. We need to take this responsibility seriously, or we will ruin a chance to foster relationships, build inspiring brands, and spread positive word of mouth.
Victoria Grantham is MD of Rose Communications.