Dear CMO:
Dialog, “listening,” “conversations,” and a host of other tangibles and intangibles await the CMO who engages on a first-person basis with his or her constituents. We in the marketing community usually applaud company leaders who open themselves up in this fashion and talk to their customers in something other than “corporate speak.”
Which brings us to Whole Foods. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at this one. CEO John Mackey apparently fully engaged in first person dialog on the merits of his company, Whole Foods, and the demerits of his competitor, Wild Oats, on the web. On Yahoo Finance message boards, to be precise. And, just for full disclosure, under a pseudonym. And then he tried to acquire this competitor who he had disparaged on a public website. Ah. This changes things a bit, doesn’t it.
Where to begin.
Imagine if Mackey had used his own name for the entire eight years. By posting under his own name, he could have done two things: first, been very up-front that his opinions were his own, and second, probably stayed completely under the radar. Who would think a CEO would be posting under his own name on a message board saying good things about his own company and bad things about a competitor? It’s almost too ridiculous to believe. Therefore, it must be false. Or true. One or the other.
What would Mackey have said if he was actually identified as the commenter using his own name? He’d probably say something along the lines of, “Yes, that’s me commenting under my own name. I’ve been doing this kind of thing ever since I learned how to spell my name.” And he’d be right, free and clear, and totally above board.
What if another board commenter had asked him if the “J. Mackey” commenter was in fact the “J. Mackey” who was also CEO of the company? The funny thing about message boards is you really don’t have to answer anyone’s questions. You don’t have to deny it. You could even fess up and tell everyone that, yep, it’s me alright. And half of the people on the board wouldn’t believe you anyway. How funny.
As it stands, however, the worst case scenario has unfolded. Coming off as slippery guy with disingenuous motives who may, or may not, have sought to undermine an acquisition target’s stock price is a bad thing.
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Key Takeaways:
> Just tell the truth, already. They probably won’t believe you anyway. But authenticity always seems to work better than the alternative. Plus, you sleep better at night. Usually.
> Many of us would encourage business leaders to communicate in an open and authentic way. Say what you mean and mean what you say. But watch what you say, particularly when you’re talking about things the SEC might find improper. Maybe set up a cheat sheet with your General Counsel that defines what’s OK and which areas to avoid. Then have at it.
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There has been a vibrant dialog recently on the subject of anonymous comments and this fits right in. Anonymity makes us all brave and stupid. Using our own names requires a moment’s introspection; the filters need to come back up because our parents taught us to be polite and respectful of others (hopefully). Mine did. I’m sure yours did, too. So at least this makes sense to most of us.
Being open is very disarming to your detractors and your fans will only get more giddy with your newly found desire to keep talking. So the lesson here, for me at least, is this: “oh, what a tanged web we weave when first we practice to deceive.”
Copyright (c) 2007 Stephen Denny