Three months ago, Whole Foods CEO John Mackey revealed in a company FTC filing that from 1999 to mid-2006, he participated in an online stock discussion board under a pseudonym. During that time, according to the company's admission, he made some strong and, some might say, disparaging, comments about Whole Foods' chief rival, Wild Oats. These comments reportedly appeared in several of the nearly 11,000 posts he made over that time.
It was the business story of the day, picked up by most major new markets and repeated often throughout the 24-hour news cycle it dominated. Various sources had experts commenting and critiquing the event from legal, ethical, online, business, and every other perspective you could imagine. I got several calls myself, asking for my opinion. As I spoke with reporters and followed the story throughout the day, I was struck by the consistent angle almost every reporter took: Mackey is clearly wrong and I need you to tell me why.
Now, the story has faded from most people's consciousness, gone almost as fast at it arrived. It has become a blip in the ongoing stream of information that bombards us each day. But there were a couple of interesting takeaways for me in the story and I wanted to share them here.
The Un-Whole Story
As the story was unfolding, I was torn between two conflicting impulses: on one hand, this was a great opportunity for me to be "out there," as PR people like to say. It was a breaking news story upon which I could gain some exposure for HOW. I am, after all, working to establish the book within the marketplace of ideas and the process of doing that requires that I make the most of every opportunity that comes my way. I felt like I should take every reporter's call and write an op-ed that I could immediately pitch to national publications. My instinct said to strike while the iron was hot.
At the same time, I wondered if I shouldn't be more thoughtful about the situation. I knew little about Mackey or the history behind the story, and the more I heard, quite frankly, the more confused I became. From the way the story was reported, I couldn't figure out the timeline of events. Mackey started posting in 1999, in the early days of widespread Internet usage yet the Whole Foods acquisition effort was relatively recent. Was he posting immediately before the deal in order to influence the market or was he posting six years ago when it was irrelevant to the transaction? (It was the latter, it turns out). Most reports seemed to intimate that everything happened all at once, despite the fact that Mackey posted his comments over a seven-year span.
Was this, I wondered, a case of covert market manipulation, as the media seemed to imply? Or was it a story about a CEO who wanted to discuss himself freely and hide his name precisely so as NOT to have his comment be unduly influential? In 1999, business was still addicted to information control. CEOs did not pop off to the public without being carefully messaged. Was Mackey just looking for a forum? He stopped posting anonymously about the same time that he started blogging. Did he come to realize that the world had changed, was now more transparent and more in need of direct relationships?
Nothing was clear to me as the story broke, and I quickly decided to pull back and wait until I thought I could add something to the conversation that would move the story forward in a meaningful fashion.
In a world of fast media, it is easy to be drawn into making unconsidered public statements. The Expectation of Response Factor exerts a tremendous pressure both on media charged with serving readers, viewers, and listeners, and on "experts" like me who are routinely asked to chime in with an instant opinion. I'm more than willing to play the PR game in order to share the ideas in HOW with as many people as I can, but I don't want to let the game play me.
Even in a world of rapidly accelerating information, there must be a space between the immediate rush to judgment and the faded-from-memory moment of irrelevance for thoughtful analysis and lively discussion. I'm looking for the way to be relevant, helpful, and current without being immediate, reactive, and unconsidered.
Now, I'm still not sure what Mackey was up to specifically, what he thought or felt, or why he made the choices he made, but the case provides a good opportunity to highlight some of the challenges that face us today. The world is changing rapidly, becoming more connected and more transparent each day. And while we are already far enough down that road to draw some conclusions about what it means and how we need to adapt, it is also important to keep in mind that we are all working it out as we go along, in real time and, in many cases, on the public stage.
What does active transparency looks like? How we can shift from one approach for achieving it to another and still be consistent and authentic? The answers are not always clear but when these sorts of stories come to light, it makes sense to ask ourselves these questions as we struggle to understand the events as reported.
In retrospect, there are a couple of things about the Mackey/Whole Foods story that I do feel strongly about. First, it is never right to denigrate your competition -- anonymously, in jest, or in private. Everyone should compete hard and try to win, but never by disparaging others. Denigrating others just doesn't "feel right" to most of us, no matter what the context, and in Mackey's case, I believe that it activated the reaction to his anonymous posting. Violating people's sense of right and wrong creates an emotionalism around an event, causing people to scrutinize it more critically. It costs you the benefit of the doubt and casts a negative pall over what might be an otherwise innocent mistake.
I also think that -- again, whatever Mackey's intentions -- Whole Foods dropped the ball when they realized what was going on. They had an opportunity to step forward and be actively transparent about the story, to proactively release all the information directly to their public and to share a clear explanation for what occurred. They might even have issued an apology if they thought that appropriate (This is what Apple did when the recent stock option backdating scandal touched them and it went far toward protecting their reputation.) Instead, Whole Foods listed the information deep in a government filing and then spent the day explaining reactively as the story took shape in the media.
Becoming transparent sometimes means showing the skeletons in the closet. Today's business needs to get accustomed to parading them out the front door, not slipping them out through the back alley with hopes that no one sees.
In short, the Whole Foods story seems to me to be a case study in the negative effects of not understanding and embracing the way transparency has changed the way we need to do things in order to thrive for the long run. Our personal and professional lives are not as distinct as they once were and the things we do in private now have ramifications for all our endeavors.
Those who realize this essential truth of the connected world and begin to proactively consider its ramifications in every decision they make will not only avoid Mackey's fate, but also accrue the benefits of doing things right.
This post first appeared on the How Blogazine.