Radical Transparency or Extreme Translucency?

by Chris Kenton on July 18, 2007

One of the most powerful aspects of social media is radical transparency . Transparency is especially “radical” in the corporate arena where communication is increasingly open, honest and truly bi-directional between enterprises and the individual stakeholders who work at, buy from and trade with each other as interlocking networked communities.

For the companies who embrace and foster transparency it often plays out all the way to the office of the CEO. As a long-time blogger and chief executive posted on his company blog:

“The recent global technology and communications revolutions are allowing for ever-increasing interconnections and transparency in processes on every imaginable level in free societies. The need for the specialist intermediaries, such as professional journalists and lawyers, to interpret, inform, and communicate on behalf of other people is rapidly declining. I love the fact that I can now communicate my own opinions and interpretations directly to people instead of depending upon a journalist to both understand and accurately communicate what I’ve told him or her to other people. It is very frustrating to be continually misquoted and misinterpreted. Now I can speak directly for myself and that is very liberating.”

This new species of corporate communications – unwashed, shoot-from-the-hip, tell it like it is transparency has great appeal. When CEOs “speak directly” they build trust and confidence. Their teams can focus on tracking and monitoring conversations. Spin turns to engaging honestly with the constituent communities and building new communities to promote and defend one’s brand. In fact, we can learn to live without the spin doctors in radically transparent communities. Simply listen and share opinions. Let the most compelling rise to the top.

However, the statement above, in spite of its appearance of transparency, is perhaps more translucent than clear. You see, its author is none other than John Mackey, who has gained a lot of attention for his social-media-savvy communications as the CEO of Whole Foods, but who has also been posting messages for eight years as “Rahodeb” on Yahoo! Finance to promote Whole Foods and denounce a competitor he was setting his sights on for acquisition.

The chronology of events left open the possibility that Mr. Mackey had a conversion, and recognizing the power of transparency, chucked his Yahoo! Finance alter ego and joined the social media band wagon. After all, the Yahoo! Finance postings predate most of his blog entries. But prevailing opinion points in a decidedly different direction.

Mr. Mackey is a successful businessman, of a socially- and people-sensitive company to boot. That usually takes a modicum of smarts and ethics. For some reason success occasionally throws those attributes out the window. How many CEO’s, high government officials, and even highly-respected clergy have we heard of that can’t seem to keep their hands out of the cookie jar or their flies zipped up? The drug of power, the blinders of ego.
Evolving Excellence:Smart? Then act that way.

Credibility and authenticity are what builds trust between people. John Mackey has been inauthentic in posting anonymously on the Yahoo! Finance website. He boosted his own company and criticized his competition without revealing his own identity.
John Cass

So the news that Whole Foods CEO John Mackey posted regularly on Yahoo message boards under the name Rahodeb is shocking. This is a major ethical lapse, and I hope that the Whole Foods board is treating it very seriously indeed.
Felix Salmon: Potfolio.com

The best barometer, however, of Mr. Mackey’s translucency is his “own” terse apology. It is ironic that that the man who relished speaking for himself (or about himself and his company) is relegated to a 35 word heavily polished statement with no opportunity for two-way dialogue other than the e-mail address of a company PR contact.

AUSTIN, Texas (July 17, 2007). Whole Foods Market today released the following statement from Co-founder, Chairman and CEO, John Mackey: “I sincerely apologize to all Whole Foods Market stakeholders for my error in judgment in anonymously participating on online financial message boards. I am very sorry and I ask our stakeholders to please forgive me.”

Now the question is, will Whole Foods take a step back from social media or will they use this as an opportunity to become fully transparent in engaging with all their stakeholders? Let us know what you think.

JG