Rex Tillerson Isn't the Only CEO With an Extra Email Address

March 16, 2017 | The Wall Street Journal

Many executives use numerous email addresses, but few adopt alter egos. 

The news that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson used an email alias while he was chief executive of Exxon Mobil Corp. surprised much of the business world—if only for his moniker’s creativity.

Many executives have an alternate company email address, or even two or three, business leaders and executive coaches say. But it is rare that those aliases take on an entirely different identity.

Much of America learned this week of “Wayne.Tracker@exxonmobil.com,” an address the New York attorney general says Mr. Tillerson used to discuss climate change. (“Wayne” is Mr. Tillerson’s middle name.) The oil company says its former CEO used the email account to talk about a broad array of topics with senior executives.

 “I have never heard of anything like that before,’’ said Steven Odland, CEO of the Committee for Economic Development, a business-led public policy group.

Mr. Odland led Office Depot Inc. until 2010 and previously was chief executive of AutoZone Inc., an auto-parts retailer. While a corporate CEO, he realized company outsiders could find him once they figured out the organization’s convention for email addresses, he recalled.

“You get buried” with unwanted external messages, and “important stuff cannot get through,’’ he said.

So Mr. Odland said he sometimes used a private but recognizable email address that differed from the company’s conventional format.

The State Department referred questions regarding Mr. Tillerson’s email to Exxon Mobil.

Exxon said in a statement it has provided more than 2.5 million pages of documents in response to a subpoena from New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office—which is investigating whether the energy company misrepresented its understanding of climate change to investors and the public—and will respond to the claims in court.

There is a distinction between using an alternate email address and adopting an alter ego, said Davia Temin, chief executive of reputation- and crisis-management firm Temin & Co., who says such an alias is often an attempt to maintain privacy “in such a porous world.” She advises against the urge. Even if messages from the alternate address circulate solely among company executives, “it looks as if it is meant to hide” something, she said.

More common, Ms. Temin says, is for executives to set up a social-media alias to join a Twitter conversation or other debate without disclosing their identities. Reddit CEO Steve Huffman has said, for instance, that when he and his co-founder were trying to make the website popular more than a decade ago, they registered multiple screen names to create the appearance of a community.

Some chief executives use aliases to “mine Twitter accounts and post things on social media just to get their finger on the pulse” of their rapidly changing world, said Jeffrey Cohn, managing director for global CEO succession planning at recruiters DHR International.

He says leaders who do so run the risk of revealing sensitive or questionable information that could be traced back to them “because as CEO, no else would have that information.”