Why A Blog?
19 July 2007
It is with no shortage of irony that my first entry in this blog on crisis issues and trends is about…. blogs. But the current hullabaloo about John Mackey’s ongoing web postings about his company (Whole Foods) under the pseudonym “Rahodeb” points to a few lessons for people who, like me, make a living in the crisis management realm.
First is the central question, “why?” Why have a blog? And if you’re a CEO of a company, that question is REALLY important.
In the past, if people wanted to have a conversation about a topic, they would have a conversation. A private conversation. Or if they wanted to put their thoughts to pen, they’d keep a diary.
Now they have a blog. But at the risk of offending my colleagues who offer counsel on smart digital strategies, just because a CEO can have a blog, it doesn’t me he/she should.
If the purpose is for vanity (“all the other CEO’s have one, so I need one“), self-aggrandizement, or simply to use as an outlet or release from the very restricted life of a CEO, well that is not a sufficient reason.
Like very smart communications strategy or tactic, there must be a purpose, and there must be an ability to measure progress against that purpose.
In the Whole Foods case, it is not clear what the purpose was, and so why assume the risk without any real benefit?
(Sorry, Mr. Mackey, when you’re a CEO in today’s world there is little distinction between your private life and your CEO life, particularly when you are talking about your company.)
I have always thought that there was an inevitability that a CEO or corporate blog would lead to trouble (aka. crisis), and such an incident would cause CEOs and corporate communications managers to rethink their “hip” blog strategy.
Well, here it is.
Which brings us to the second lesson.
I am sure that the Whole Foods CEO never imagined he was breaking any rules by his behavior. And it is quite conceivable that the SEC, in its investigation, will draw the same conclusion.
But even if it is ultimately concluded that no laws were broken, the damage has been done. Both Mr. Mackey and the company will have paid a price.
The point here is that companies and executives often find themselves in trouble, and sometimes “indicted and convicted” in the court of public opinion, even though they did not cross the legal line.
The reason is that in today’s world, people and organizations are judged on two dimensions. The first is the clear one – the law (“acceptable behavior“). The second is far more opaque – “expected behavior“.
Unfortunately, there is no clear definition of “expected behavior“, other than it is a level of behavior that exceeds that which is required by the law. In other words, behavior that conforms to a set of values, not laws.
But who says what is right? Often the media make such a judgment by simply calling attention to an executive’s or a company’s actions, even when there is no allegation of a violation of the law. This is the case we see with Whole Foods. We also see this with recent media coverage of the marketing practices of pharmaceutical and medical device companies. What they are doing may not violate the law, but it does cross some sort of line that defines whether a behavior is acceptable.
But who draws that line? Media? NGOs? Certainly not lawmakers.
The reality is that companies receive no rewards for simply adhering to “acceptable behavior,” and they don’t necessarily receive any awards for following “expected behavior” (however that is defined), but they can certainly be punished if they fail to do so.
Which brings us back to the Whole Foods experience. What was the purpose of Mr. Mackey’s web alter-ego? Did he achieve his desired purpose? Did Mr. Mackey ever consider the potential risks? Is there a real value for CEO-sponsored blogs; a value that exceeds the potential risks? How does one mitigate those risks?