High-profile individuals from President Barack Obama to the president of Taco Bell, Brian Niccol, have done Ask Me Anything sessions on Reddit. While there is considerable upside, PR pros who have orchestrated AMAs on behalf of corporate leaders and celebrities warn that the no-holds-barred, wildly unpredictable nature of the Q&As can make them a minefield for PR missteps.
It is common practice for PR practitioners to coach CEOs and public personalities through their answers before a media interview. Yet AMAs are a completely different animal. The Reddit community will often ask the running joke, "Would you rather fight 100 duck-sized horses or one horse-sized duck?" and challenge posters if it is unsatisfied with answers. In short, the format demands that subjects be as off-script and real as possible.
AMAs by the numbers
A number of VIPs have interacted with some of their biggest fans and most vile haters through Reddit AMAs. Here are 10 heavyweights and the number of comments they prompted.
Bill Gates: 27,729
President Barack Obama: 24,068
Will Ferrell: 16,542
Tom Hanks: 13,638
Woody Harrelson: 9,607
Taco Bell CEO Brian Niccol: 8,615
Jeopardy champ Ken Jennings: 5,179
Brian Kraznich, Intel CEO: 4,946
Getty Trust CEO Jim Cuno: 177
Taco Bell’s Niccol did an AMA on March 27, the day the fast-food chain’s new breakfast menu debuted. His answers prompted a ton of news coverage due in large part to his clever quips. When asked when the breakfast menu would come to Canada, for example, he joked, "As soon as they take Justin Bieber back."
Rob Poetsch, director of communications at Taco Bell, tells PRWeek the company didn’t expect such a massive media response. Yet it does think the session was positively received for two reasons.
One was timing. "We had talked about doing it four weeks earlier, but because we weren’t disclosing pricing information or elements of the breakfast campaign, we made the decision to hold off," he says. "We felt for us to do it right we had to be completely transparent."
Second, the president was fully on-board with the opportunity, pitched to him by Poetsch and the company’s CMO. "Brian said, ‘This feels like something other brands wouldn’t do,’ so we knew he got it," recalls Poetsch. "That was reflected in how he interacted with the fans. He didn’t just select questions that he wanted to answer because he understood he would have been called out on that. And he answered questions that might be considered controversial."
For instance, when asked how much the chain’s sales have increased in Colorado since the legislation of marijuana there, Taco Bell’s president humorously answered, "420% (But seriously what is 4/20?)."
"You have to let your executive take the reins or it doesn’t work," advises Poetsch.
Taylor PR put together the program for Taco Bell’s breakfast menu media blitz, including the Reddit Q&A, from its offices where monitors displayed the questions, comments, and metrics in real time.
"Transparency is critical when engaging the Reddit audience, and not too many brands are comfortable with that approach, but that is an important part of Taco Bell’s brand fabric," explains PJ Brovak, SVP at Taylor.
42West is an entertainment PR firm that has orchestrated Ask Me Anything chats for actors such as Tom Hanks to promote Captain Phillips and Ricky Gervais to plug his series Derek. Leslee Dart, head of the agency’s talent division and co-head of entertainment marketing, likes AMAs because celebrities can interact directly with fans. Their answers can also generate further publicity on mainstream news sites, social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, and there are immediate metrics to measure impact. Reddit provides session stats such as page views and the number of comments.
"We get a good sense of how successful it was and can often tell by the questions how well we engaged the community," she says.
Yet Dart adds that the firm only recommends the AMAs for personalities who they are absolutely positive can handle the Reddit environment.
"This is a young, social-media-savvy audience, and they can be volatile. Let’s face it: there are crazy people in the world and some of them go onto these sites and take advantage of these opportunities," she adds. "We would never recommend it to anyone who has skeletons in their closet – not to imply that any of our clients who haven’t done it have skeletons – but it has to be someone who is not afraid to answer no matter what the question."
Dart also considers how well a celebrity can use wit and humor to diffuse awkward or difficult questions. If a client isn’t both an open book and quick-witted, even if there is a good chance the Q&A could go well, then "we don’t think it’s worth the risk of recommending," she explains.
"I have a rule: you never get fired for saying no. The one time you say, ‘Oh, I really think you will do fine with this,’ they do it, it bombs, and then you get fired," she says. "This is not like making a decision to do a 60 Minutes segment or a cover of a magazine, which can become an anchor around which a publicity campaign is built."
"This can be just a nice complement," contends Dart.
Many posts are done without the involvement of Reddit staffers, although the site does reach out to celebrities based on interest from the community. Victoria Taylor, director of communications at Reddit, will sometimes assist with AMAs by typing in the responses of the celebrities who do the Q&A over the phone. She discloses on the chat when she is helping in that way.
"Reddit is very rewarding, but it is also high risk," Taylor tells PRWeek. "[Participants] are going to a community in their own space and posters have to be respectful of that space. We try hard to educate people that they have to treat questions that may seem irreverent or out of left field the same as they would questions about the specific project they are promoting."
"Also, if you are going to do an AMA, you need to devote more than 30 or 45 minutes," she adds. "If you only budget 10 minutes to do it, it’s like ringing the Internet doorbell and running away. We tell people to devote at least an hour and half, if not two."
A number of celebrity AMAs have gone awry.
During Morgan Freeman’s Ask Me Anything session to promote the movie Oblivion last year, Reddit users accused the actor’s publicists of answering for him because they deemed his answers too generic and short.
"This doesn't sound like Morgan Freeman, he's much more humble, intelligent, and friendly," fumed one poster.
Joyce Sevilla, head of PR for the US operations of Entertainment Fusion Group, whose clients include actress Julie Benz and music producer Scooter Braun, says Woody Harrelson’s AMA is widely held as one of the worst Reddit blunders. The actor was promoting his 2011 film Rampart when someone asked him about an alleged one-night stand.
"Harrelson denied the story and tried to bring the topic back to the film, but his answers after definitely showed that the previous question had an impact on him," says Sevilla. "Reddit is the Internet's baby, not an editorial body. It's not Time Inc. Often Reddit can be a bad neighborhood. And they will ask anything."
She adds that "I’ve also seen it backfire in a way where the celebrity’s project is glossed over due to redditors wanting to know more about his or her personal life."
Still, Sevilla says it can be "a valuable platform to promote a project." She explains that they work best in two cases: when the subject is a large cultural figure who can answer a variety of questions or has a vast knowledge on a topic that touches various facets of life.
In addition to being an effective fan-engagement tool, "on the off-chance that a redditor asks a celebrity for his or her favorite brand of a certain product, that may result in potential endorsement deals for the celebrity," she adds.
Communicators on the brand side – even in the nonprofit realm – are also mindful of the potential challenges.
When the J. Paul Getty Trust was looking for ways to let its audience better understand the scope of the arts organization, "We felt Reddit was a natural fit because we have a deep commitment to open content," says its VP of communications, Ron Hartwig.
In two separate sessions last year on the Ask Historians subreddit, the Getty Trust’s CEO Jim Cuno and director of its museum Timothy Potts participated in AMAs.
"But we knew the areas of potential sensitivity – around restitution of objects and executive compensation since we publicly disclose salaries," says Hartwig.
While he adds that they were ready to address both topics, "we knew not to over-prepare them. We had heard horror stories of PR people who had prepped their folks only to have questioners say, ‘Tune out this guy. He is just a mouthpiece for PR department.’ So we were careful to realize that this had to be ad-libbed and from the heart.’"
"If we had any fear it was that after convincing two of your top executives to commit two hours to this that no one would ask them a question," says Hartwig. "But we were heartened that there is clearly a significant following on Reddit of people interested in arts and culture."
"We would definitely do it again," he adds.