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Isn’t anyone going to stick up for poor Vic – er, I mean, John Mackey? You know, the volatile CEO of one of the decade’s biggest retail success stories whose renegade, loose-cannon style spurred the growth of Whole Foods before leading to his professional unraveling via some anonymous – well, supposedly anonymous – postings on Yahoo’s message board.
It’s a classic tale of hubris for the Internet age: Mackey’s fatal error was thinking the Internet would enshroud him in anonymity like an invisible cloak. And yet recycled screen names, IP addresses, Google searches – eventually there’s a way to tie your true identity to your anonymous dispatches.
The more time we spend on the Net the more we realize there is no such thing as anonymity anymore. The old New Yorker cartoon about how no one on the Internet knows you’re a dog is so 1990s. These days, people know about you online to the degree they’re willing to dig up the dirt. If no one knows you’re a dog in 2007, it’s probably because no one cares.
In Mackey’s case, it was – improbably – the federal government who dug deep enough. The Federal Trade Commission, which roused itself from its usual napping state to protest Whole Foods’ proposed takeover of Wild Oats on antitrust grounds, brought the eight-year-long deception to light. Mackey was posing as “rahodeb”, an anagram of his wife’s name, while talking trash to Wild Oats and touting Whole Foods.
The FTC’s complaint is on the Wall Street Journal‘s site, and the infamous footnote outing rahodeb is on page 4. Why the FTC is troubled by this merger and so few others, I’m not sure. But the entire complaint is worth a read as a masterful exercise in turning a CEO’s public (and less than public) statements against his own goals. All journalism should be this biting. The Journal, in turn, did an excellent job of cherrypicking the most damning bits from the Yahoo archives: rahodeb’s absurd “$800+” price target and her narcissistic assertion that Mackey is “cute.”
So it may be a fool’s errand to say a few words in favor of John Mackey, but maybe I’m a sucker for a lost cause. It’s not that I want to exonerate Mackey for his stupidity, but I do think a couple of obvious points concerning the Internet are being overlooked in this story.
First, Yahoo’s stock boards have long been accompanied by the deafening sound of grinding axes. Spend enough time there and you probably won’t come back: The most frequent posters are either touting a stock in hopes of sparking a short squeeze or ratcheting the price high enough for a profit; or they’re hedge funds mercilessly dissing a stock toward $0. And yet, if you stick with it long enough, you may get a sense of which way the wind is blowing a particular stock.
Given that, the SEC can easily find enough sound bites in rahodeb’s comments to nail Mackey, but it would be ignoring that broader context: a sort of chaotic and no-holds-barred context, but in the end a messily democratic one.
Then there’s a point brought up by TheStreet.com’s Aaron Task: more CEOs and especially lower-level executives are just as guilty of anonymous postings. If the SEC goes after Mackey, it had better go after the other corporate employees who have been surely doing the same thing. Fair, after all, is fair. (Dislcosure: I am a contributor to TheStreet.com).
What’s more, Mackey’s gambit is classic public relations, employing a third-party authority, however manufactured, to push your brand. Look at this video of PR pioneer (and Sigmund Freud’s nephew) Edward Bernays, who corralled 5,000 doctors into promoting the health benefits of a high-cholesterol, bacon-and-eggs breakfast. (You need RealMedia to see the video; you can also try the audio at NPR.)
Is persuading a phalanx of doctors to push your client’s PR message more ethical and less illegal than adopting an anonymous persona on Yahoo? Should it be? I myself doubt it, but maybe you can use your PR skills to make your case in the comments section.
I hate the old cliché about the Internet changing the rules, but it applies here. In an era where there’s no true anonymity on the Internet, where the truth will out whenever necessary, our only recourse is a form of micro-PR: managing the spin to meet our personal version of reality. That’s what we do when we blog – or when we comment on blogs. And in that sense, we are all John Mackey.