Recently the organic food supermarket Whole Foods readjusted its code of conduct to prohibit senior-level executives from participating, under any circumstances, in online forums.
The Austin, TX-based company's new guidelines are in response to its own CEO John Mackey getting caught posting anonymously on online message boards for many years, including posts denigrating rival store Wild Oats, which Whole Foods eventually agreed to acquire.
Mackey's case is particularly interesting because CEOs are usually concerned about employees attacking critics anonymously or posting damaging information online. When Whole Foods had to acknowledge Mackey's subterfuge, it was likely the chain would address the situation in company policy.
But broadly prohibiting corporate execs from direct communication with consumers can ultimately be as damaging as the original sin it might try to prevent. For many, blogs and message boards are the only way consumers can gain C-suite access to a company they regularly patronize. They serve as powerful tools for executives to curb unfair or dishonest rumors about their company in a transparent way. Indeed, Mackey was previously lionized for his frank commentary on his official blog, which is now on hiatus.
As more corporations start to realize the value of online forums, such as social media sites and blogs, it's incumbent upon them to seek out social-media experts and learn how to interact properly. Disguising yourself in a chat room to disparage a rival when you're the CEO of a major brand is the wrong way to go. But so is retreating from the online community. That space has its pitfalls, but those who learn to use social media for the right reason will always earn customers' respect and trust - a benefit that outweighs the fear of another misstep.