SUMNER, WA: Communications professionals said this week that REI CEO Jerry Stritzke should have been better prepared before sitting down for an Ask Me Anything session on Tuesday.
Stritzke began taking questions from Reddit users, presumably to foster more support for the retailer’s decision to close its doors on Black Friday. However, the conversation quickly spiraled into something else altogether.
Current and former employees, as well as customers, blasted the retailer for its emphasis on selling memberships said it punishes associates who don’t meet quotas.
"If it wasn’t a PR stunt, I’m not really sure what it was other than something really poorly thought out," said Nick Kalm, founder and president of Reputation Partners.
The company "could have done even the most basic due diligence to see how employees were feeling" considering that the issues were laid out and upvoted for the world to see on Reddit, he added.
"Whatever goodwill they got from [closing on Black Friday] was erased by this ill-conceived Reddit Q&A," said Kalm.
Other participants in the session noted that the company often donates to charities and social causes, but pays many employees minimum wage.
"I work the night stocking shift in a NorCal store and make minimum wage, meanwhile we are donating millions to public parks and trails," one participant said, according to CNN. "Can’t we do a little of both?"
Bethany Hawley, manager of communications and public affairs at REI, said the company has high employee engagement and low turnover for the retail industry.
"Jerry has shared: ‘I believe in stepping up, listening to all sides, and taking action,’" she said via email. "Transparent leadership is the only way to go in a transparent age."
Melissa Arnoff, SVP at Levick, said it stood out to her that the two-year CEO "didn’t seem to understand how much pressure was put on selling memberships."
"It made him look like he didn’t understand the company he’s in charge of," she added.
Arnoff noted that as an infrequent REI shopper, what came out during the AMA "didn’t match up with the REI that I knew." Yet that could be a problem for the company because any given customer who has not had a gripe with REI now knows it has problems.
Kalm said REI may have not realized the issue or simply hadn’t yet tackled it, but any company taking its initiatives public "better make sure the reality supports that messaging."
"They need to come out with a clear plan of how they’re going to handle this and what they’re going to do," she said. "Or if they’re going to decide, from a corporate and financial perspective, this doesn’t matter, then they’re not going to change."
Edelman, which works with REI, deferred comment to its client.
This story was updated on November 13 with comment from Hawley.