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Originally published July 13, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified July 13, 2007 at 2:03 AM

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Whole Foods CEO wrong to gab online but hide his real identity

Journalists complain public-company CEOs are often now so scripted, so determined to stay "on message," that they too closely resemble politicians...

Dow Jones Newswires

NEW YORK — Journalists complain public-company CEOs are often now so scripted, so determined to stay "on message," that they too closely resemble politicians.

From the journalist's vantage point, this is bad. It makes it hard to garner from a CEO interview what the journalist wants most: news, something different, a zippy quote.

But there's at least one public-company chief executive who hasn't succumbed to being scripted, not by a long shot. His name is John Mackey, co-founder and CEO of Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods Market.

The Federal Trade Commission is suing the company because it doesn't want Whole Foods to buy Boulder, Colo.-based Wild Oats Markets in a $565 million deal. The FTC claims it would be anticompetitive to combine the two health-food grocery merchants.

The merits of the case aren't the issue for this column, but Mackey does seem to have a solid point when he wrote the following on his blog on the Whole Foods Web site:

"The FTC is failing to recognize how quickly the competition in the supermarket industry is evolving. Whole Foods doesn't merely compete with other natural-foods supermarket companies such as Wild Oats, but also with natural foods discount chain Trader Joe's, upscale perishable supermarkets such as Wegman's and Central Market, new supermarket created natural foods stores such as Green Wise by Publix and Sunflower by SuperValu, over 200 food co-ops around the United States, remodeled upscale supermarket stores such as Safeway's Lifestyle stores and HEB's Platinum stores, Sprouts, thousands of local farmers' markets, and thousands and thousands of supermarkets selling natural and organic foods, and most recently Wal-Mart."

The Mackey blog is a good idea, and more CEOs are using them.

But The Wall Street Journal revealed Wednesday that Mackey hasn't confined his views of his company, Wild Oats and the industry to his blog or traditional communications outlets CEOs use.

For about eight years until mid-2006, Mackey was also "Rahodeb," a poster on the stock-market forums of Yahoo Finance.

These are places where rumors, cheerleading for companies and savage attacks on them are often found, frequently under the cover of pseudonyms.

Say what you want about online stock forums, they are no place for a CEO.

According to The Journal, whose reporters followed the trail from a footnote in an FTC filing in its case against the merger, Mackey talked down Wild Oats in a January 2005 posting. He criticized Wild Oats' former CEO. And he was often quite enthusiastic about Whole Foods and its CEO.

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Once this practice became public, Mackey quickly defended his actions in a blog posting. It's worth reading. Here are five of the seven points he makes.

"1. I posted on Yahoo! under a pseudonym because I had fun doing it. Many people post on bulletin boards using pseudonyms.

"2. I never intended any of those postings to be identified with me.

"3. The views articulated by rahodeb sometimes represent what I actually believed and sometimes they didn't. Sometimes I simply played 'devil's advocate' for the sheer fun of arguing. Anyone who knows me realizes that I frequently do this in person, too.

"4. Rahodeb's postings therefore do not represent any official beliefs, policies, or intentions by either Whole Foods Market or by me.

"5. At no time did I reveal any proprietary information about Whole Foods on Yahoo."

What Mackey doesn't seem to accept is that when you assume the mantle of public-company CEO, you give up some things.

You shouldn't pretend you are someone else in public, not that anyone should ever do that, regardless of chat-room etiquette.

You have to assume, whenever and wherever you speak, that people believe you are speaking as the company's CEO and for the company. That's who you are. Forget "devil's advocate."

Mackey's been a successful entrepreneur, and many successful people get that way because they think outside the box. There's nothing wrong with unconventional.

But there is something wrong with talking about your company while not admitting you are the co-founder and the CEO. It is simply misleading.

Neal Lipschutz is senior vice president and managing editor of Dow Jones Newswires.

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