Why Executives Shouldn’t Blog: Julie Roehm and Wal-Mart

Walmart LogoI’ve been following the rather appalling story of former Wal-Mart marketing executive Julie Roehm, who was fired for “having an improper romantic relationship with a subordinate, accepting gifts from suppliers and misusing her company expense account” [ref: Walmart Fires Roehm] In her own defense, Roehm has now countersued Wal-Mart — surprise, surprise — accusing Chief Executive H. Lee Scott Jr. and other top executives of “accepting sweetheart deals, travel and concert tickets from suppliers and engaging in improper relationships.” [ref: Roehm Countersues] But what would it have looked like if they both blogged? I kind of envision it going like this…

ADventures at Wal-Mart: A Personal Blog
“If you read the trade press, you’ll know that we’re considering some new ad agencies because we want to launch a fun, engaging new campaign for Wal-Mart as we go into the 2007 Christmas season (yes, we do plan that far in advance). What do you think? What are the top half-dozen ads you’ve seen in the last week or two?”
Then the axe is dropped and Roehm is fired…
“This might be my last blog posting where I mention Wal-Mart. I have been terminated from Wal-Mart, much to my surprise. What the heck? According to the memo I got, it’s because I’ve been acting inappropriately for a Wal-Mart executive? C’mon. Wal-Mart might be a bit backwards with its corporate policies, and there’s no question that its execs are a goofy bunch. Heck, we all tend to play a bit fast and loose with vendors. Welcome to corporate American, 2007. So that leads to the obvious question; Why me? There’s something else going on and I’m going to get the to bottom of it…”
Then even later, when Wal-Mart files court documents detailing the improper relationship with her subordinate…
“Now Wal-Mart has concocted a smear campaign against me. Under cover of a counterclaim, Wal-Mart is insinuating things about my personal life and pretending I violated some code of ethics with advertisers, all to distract from the reality that it didn’t want my form of progressive marketing. In addition to refusing to honor my contract, Wal-Mart has used anonymous witnesses and employed selective use of email, taken way out of context. When you patch together pieces of messages sent at different times, you can create pretty much any story you want.”
[oops! That’s a real quote from Ms. Roehm. Perfect for a blog entry, though, isn’t it?] And meanwhile, on the H. Lee Scott, Jr. blog where the CEO blogs…
The View from Bentonville
“We’ve been moving aggressively into organic products, as you know if you’ve had a chance to pop into any of our Super Wal-Mart stores. Why? Because we feel strongly that organic farming is responsible stewardship of the land and we want to do our part. What do you think? Do you support this move and are you interested in us carrying more organic goods, or are you more likely to buy the usual goods and products (we have over 10,000 non-organic items in our marketplaces at any given time, so there are plenty of choices).”
Ya see, the secret of a corporate blog is that it wouldn’t write about personnel issues like the termination and subsequent lawsuit of Julie Roehm. And this, of course, would upset Julie who would seek to raise visibility of her case…
ADventures at Wal-Mart: A Personal Blog
“So H. Lee Scott, Jr. and his band of cronies at Wal-Mart think they can sidestep this issue and continue to smear me in the trades. Yeah, well, that’s not going to happen. Today I filed a countersuit and I have lots of documentation to back up my charges, that the senior Walmart execs frequently engaged in sweetheart deals, accepted concert tickets, travel and other presents, and generally violated Walmart’s vaunted code of ethics time and time again. I’ll start posting some of this here on my blog so you can see what I’m talking about.”

One reason that it’s dangerous for executives to have the bully pulpit of even a semi-personal blog is that things might just go south with the company and while it’s bad enough when a situation like Roehm vs. Wal-Mart spreads across the business press, the prurient nature of the charges and counter-charges, the gossipy sense of it all, would make it far more damaging in the wider public eye.
It’s a conundrum, really, and one of the greatest issues surrounding the much-vaunted CEO Blogging that so many of my peers promote: either a blog is so sterile and vetted by corporate that it’s not interesting reading, or it’s so personal that if things go bad, the blogger might well either embarrass themselves or, worse, embarrass the company.
So what would happen on the GM Fastlane Blog if Bob Lutz were terminated from GM? What would happen if the Board terminated Jon Schwartz from his position at Sun Microsystems? Would you read about it on his blog? Or what about a change in employment status for Randy Tinseth over at Boeing?
I’ve written extensively about why I believe that CEO’s shouldn’t blog (see Why CEO’s Shouldn’t Blog and Why Jon Schwartz Shouldn’t be Blogging for example) and this is just another example of the danger of having executives communicating with the public through a channel that doesn’t have the controls of HR, marketing, legal and so on.
Some bloggers say that it’s all about “transparency”, but transparency is a dangerous thing, a two-edged sword…
[Corp references: Walmart (NYSE: WMT), Boeing (NYSE:BA), Sun Microsystems (Nasdaq: SUNW), General Motors (NYSE: GM)]

8 comments on “Why Executives Shouldn’t Blog: Julie Roehm and Wal-Mart

  1. An interesting scenario. I think CEOs can blog as much as they want, they just need to accept that when they become transparent, it’s hard to cover up again, whenever it suits them.

  2. I think that the power of a CEO blog has an equal amount of responsibility to go with it. I think that Jon Schwartz’s blog is awesome. It got me to take another look at using Sun equipment since it was him acknowledging that Sun had turned its back on many customers and was not giving them what they demanded. I think that the thing that is missing most from companies today is to admit that they are wrong. Many hold to the same marketing line even when everyone, including the companies executives know that whatever they sell sucks. Jon’s blog is at Sun.com which gives the company control which is appropriate, especially in the event of a termination.
    I think that the pro’s outweigh the con’s on blogging.

  3. Hi Dave. Great points. I’m not so sure this illustrates why certain executives shouldn’t blog as much as it simply shows how so many executive blogging topics are off-limits. I’ll use my own blog as an example. Even though I like to think (and even say!) that I’m trying to be as transparent as possible, providing an insider’s view of the publishing world, there are lots of topics I can’t go into. Most of them are tied to confidential matters, things I can’t talk about at a cocktail party, so they’re definitely out of bounds for my blog.
    This is the case for every executive blogger. Does anyone really think Bob Lutz is sharing all GM’s secrets?
    Back to your real point: Should executives blog? Yes, I think for the most part, they should. Those who can’t make the time or simply aren’t very good at stringing together interesting thoughts and posts shouldn’t…but then again, how did they get such a great gig if they can’t do that?!

  4. As always, you argue your case very persuasively, Dave. I do think that what you illustrate is that some executives should not be encouraged to blog and some companies, if they are not prepared to strategize and manage the process, probably should not encourage blogging. And as has been noted here, some topics should not be touched on in a blog. Taken to its logical conclusion, your argument would surely preclude executives addressing conferences, writing articles for journals, maybe even discussing business at barbecues! 🙂

  5. There is no doubt that a CEO with a personal blog is an accident waiting to happen. Each post could have many legal implications. I am also surprised that a CEO making millions each year has the time to keep up with a blog.

  6. Who is a CEO blogging to? If their company is public, then nearly everything (s)he has to say to the public is governed by the SEC. All you need is one comment that is contrary to a PR release or an SEC filing and life will become ugly in a hurry. Not worth it.

  7. Please read a book named A CASE AGAINST WALLMART written by an American Citizen. Hell lot of profos on how Wallmart is controlling the retail arena and screwing its employees

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