Reddit has become a valued PR channel for its popular Ask Me Anything sessions, in which household names from actor Channing Tatum and President Barack Obama to CEOs of major brands such as Nissan and Taco Bell have engaged in no-holds-barred chats.
However, agency CEOs and Hollywood publicists now say they would think twice about putting their clients on the platform, at least until Reddit cleans up the fallout from the reported firing of Victoria Taylor, its highly esteemed director of talent. Taylor, also the site’s former communications director, oversaw the AMAs and was the point person for its unpaid moderators.
In response to Taylor’s ouster, moderators shut down more than 250 subreddits and users led a petition calling for the resignation of interim CEO Ellen Pao that received more than 100,000 signatures. Many users also flooded the site, attacking Pao’s race and gender and posting hateful images of her Photoshopped as Hitler. The company responded with a leadership change: Pao resigned, and was replaced by Reddit’s original chief executive, Steve Huffman.
The news of Taylor’s ouster surprised not only the Reddit moderators, but also many in the PR industry. They argue she was a key reason for the AMA format’s success, both for the newsmakers who appeared on it and its vocal, impassioned community of more than 160 million unique visitors per month.
"I have no idea why she was terminated, but I was shocked," says Edelman president and CEO Richard Edelman. "I thought she was an important person there, and the reaction to her dismissal indicated she had really made an impact."
He added that "she was a real asset, and it’s a loss for Reddit and PR people, too. Her Ask Me Anythings are a fantastic vehicle for PR pros."
Yet until at least some of the negative publicity settles and the company makes inroads with its angry community, the value of AMAs "is up in the air," says Edelman.
"I would be cautious until things are clearer," he adds.
AMAs are a risky proposition because they put subjects on the hot seat and by nature demand quick, unscripted responses, says Lewis Kay, COO and EVP of entertainment for PMK*BNC. Yet his firm has worked with Taylor on AMAs for many top Hollywood clients, including Amy Poehler, Jimmy Kimmel, and Adam Scott.
"When you don’t truly understand how something works, it makes it easier to say no and shield your clients from doing it," says Kay. "That was [Taylor’s] best gift to the entertainment side of the business – she made it so that people like me understood the incredible value of Reddit and could easily explain it to our clients, many of whom are not that tech savvy."
He adds that "[Taylor] built a bridge between the entertainment and Reddit communities. It was not an easy task."
"Her departure absolutely makes it harder to work with them. I don’t know the protocol to set up an AMA right now. Who will walk a client through it to ensure they understand what they are doing and the audience they are doing it for?" Kay asks. "I am eager to see what is next and probably will wait a beat before recommending clients for future AMAs."
As for Taylor herself, he’s confident she will more than land on her feet.
"She will bring instant credibility to wherever she ends up," Kay says.
Taylor, who took to Reddit to thank the outpouring of support but did not elaborate on her departure, could not be reached for comment.
Ashley Dawkins, Reddit’s director of outreach, says via email that the company plans to hire a talent relations representative to assist with actors, politicians, and other newsmakers on AMAs. In the interim, she and Reddit creative projects manager Michael Pope will assist when necessary.
While there was plenty of speculation in the media that Taylor was fired because she opposed proposals to monetize the AMA format, Dawkins tells PRWeek that "the format of the AMA will not change."
"We are simply phasing out Reddit’s role in-between interesting people and the Reddit audience so we can help these remarkable folks become active redditors, continuously engaging with our communities," she says.
Step one: Quelling the Reddit revolt
Reddit is in the process of rebuilding its relationships with its top users. In the first of what he says will be many AMAs, Huffman acknowledged, "We have a lot of work to do. One of my first priorities is to re-establish a relationship with the community."
Reddit could have avoided a revolt by its most frequent users, had it not failed to develop a communications plan for Taylor’s exit that recognized how valuable she was to the community and how vocal they might be about her departure, say digital and crisis comms pros.
In addition to shutting down the Ask Me Anything forum, two moderators wrote an op-ed in The New York Times characterizing the company as "tone deaf" in its approach to communicating with its "free labor of volunteers."
"This entire site thrives based on the hard work of a community and the time the moderators put in, so to not have given them an early, insider heads up that this was coming or communicated to them in a special way was really short sighted," says Erin Flior, VP and digital marketing expert at Levick. "It was almost like they forgot what their entire site mantra was about."
She concedes it is never easy to communicate about a human resources change and suspects the company struggled with an explanation about the reason for Taylor’s ouster.
"It sounds like to me one of the cofounders had a moment of hubris, wanted to be in charge of the AMAs, and made an executive decision that everyone had to live with," she says, referring to a claim made by a former Reddit CEO that the site’s co-founder and chairman, Alexis Ohanian, fired Victoria Taylor. "I think [everyone else] was left spinning their wheels on how to communicate that without making him look like an arrogant individual."
Flior recommends Reddit "really look at Wikipedia as an example of how to establish and maintain positive relationships with people who are really empowered to take charge of various areas of the site."
"Wikipedia does an amazing job of communicating to their highly influential editors, in a way that Reddit will need to do as it evolves as a company and understands the power it has entrusted to its community," she says.
Chad Latz, president of the digital innovation group at Cohn & Wolfe, says there is a lot of speculation about why Taylor was let go and whether it means the platform is considering a pay-to-play model.
"While we can speculate what a potential change in format may mean for the platform, brands, and PR pros, the most conspicuous and indisputable fact is the power that the volunteer community of moderators has over the platform," he notes. "Compromising the format or a failure to acknowledge the power and the importance of the perspective of the moderator community comes with consequence."
Latz adds that it’s crucial for marketers and the website’s management to realize that the ultimate power at Reddit is the community itself.
"Brands, PR pros, and Reddit should all recognize the power of that community to drive the success or failure of the platform and need to plan their campaigns and platform changes accordingly," he advises.