SEC Investigation Behind Him, Whole Foods CEO Returns to Blogging

  |  May 28, 2008   |  Comments

John Mackey is by turns apologetic and defiant in first new post after being cleared of wrongdoing.

Whole Foods CEO John Mackey relaunched his blog last Wednesday more than 10 months after suspending it in the wake of a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation.

The May 21st entry is a long, introspective look at the challenges the CEO and his company have faced over the past 10 months. Alternately apologetic and defiant, Mackey admits to making mistakes in judgment -- not ethics -- and blames the media for blowing the story out of proportion. He also promises to continue blogging in an effort to communicate openly with Whole Foods' customers and investors.

Mackey had ceased blogging at the suggestion of his lawyers and board of directors in June of last year after the Wall Street Journal revealed that he had been using an anonymous screen name to post messages to the Yahoo Finance board. Over more than seven years of posting, Mackey had enthusiastically praised his own company and harshly criticized competitor Wild Oats Market, which Whole Foods was in the process of acquiring when the story broke. The SEC recently concluded that Mackey hadn't broken any laws and that no action needed to be taken.

Mackey's newest post reviews the charges against him and his company at length, breaking down his many reasons -- both personal and professional -- for posting Yahoo messages under an assumed name ("Rahodeb," a play on his wife's name, Deborah). It concludes with an apology and a promise to take to heart the lessons he has learned from his ordeal.

"The main reason I began posting on Yahoo! was because I enjoy and learn from online community interactions. I also like to express my viewpoints and I like to argue and debate," wrote Mackey in the entry. "My mistake here was one of judgment -- not ethics. I didn't realize posting under a screen name in an online community such as Yahoo! would be so controversial and would cause so many people to be upset. That was a mistake in judgment on my part and one that I deeply regret."

A Whole Foods spokeswoman said no one was immediately available to comment on Mackey's return to the blogosphere.

Marketers are hardly of one mind when it comes to CEO bloggers, particularly when the chief executive is coming off an SEC investigation over his use of the Internet as a communications tool. But Pete Blackshaw, EVP of Nielsen Online Digital Strategic Services, said Mackey's blog could help his reputation not just in real time, but in terms of search engine results.

"His biggest challenge -- for many years to come, I suspect -- will be shaking the consumer venom off the 'organic' Google search results when you type any combination of terms related to the Whole Foods CEO," said Blackshaw. "The blog will clearly help, but the digital trail of hostility around this issue is quite unprecedented."

Indeed, comments about the post tended toward the positive, with some saying "it's good to have you back." Others, however, took the opportunity to tell Mackey he was being disingenuous. Or as one commenter simply put it: "A corporate officer anonymously posting about their own company and their competitors. Seems unethical to me."

Either way, Blackshaw noted, it's a story not likely to die anytime soon, especially as long as Mackey insists on being in the spotlight.

"The ultimate irony of this entire episode, one his blog will need to continually address or defuse, is that the CEO of an 'Organic' grocery story posted what most perceived to be 'inorganic' or improperly labeled commentary," he said. "It's got the memorability of man-bites-dog."

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Douglas Quenqua is a journalist based in Brooklyn, NY who writes about culture and technology. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Wired, The New York Observer, and Fortune.

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