With roughly one month until Star Wars: The Force Awakens hits the theaters, I’ve decided to channel my inner Obi Wan Kenobi for the latest edition of “these are not the softball questions your CEO was looking for.”
The CEO in question here is Jerry Strizke, head of outdoor gear and clothing store REI, who became just the latest executive to fall victim to Reddit’s Ask Me Anything (AMA) series. The Reddit AMAs are pretty much as the name implies – actors, politicians, executives, athletes and everyday individuals – can try to set up a Q&A with Reddit members, with the only requirement being that members can ask any question they want (within guidelines of course). The topics range from an actor’s movie career to a guy driving furniture down to Fort Worth, Texas, and as you might guess, the topic and guest strongly correlate with the number of Redditors who join.
REI CEO Jerry Strizke was probably feeling pretty confident ahead of his November 10th AMA. After all, he had received mostly widespread plaudits for the decision to close REI on Black Friday and still pay employees despite what would be a negative hit on revenues. Riding that wave of good publicity, the decision was made to pull the trigger on the Reddit AMA, despite the long list of others who exited the series bloodied, battered and beaten (see: Woody Harrelson, Morgan Freeman, Ann Coulter who, like Admiral Ackbar, realized too late that, “it’s a trap!”)
Sure enough, the bio posted for Strizke to kickoff the Reddit AMA oozed with confidence:
Hi Reddit. I’m Jerry Strizke, CEO of REI. You might have heard about us recently when we announced that we would be closing all of our stores on Black Friday this year. We’re paying our 12,000 employees to take the day off and we’re encouraging them to opt out of the Black Friday madness and spend the day outdoors with loved ones. I have my team here helping me answer questions, so go easy on me. I’m new to Reddit and have already learned the hard way that /r/Trees isn’t about the great outdoors. Ask me anything!
Ask they did, and while some certainly addressed the store closing, the most upvoted comment was for an employee who painted a negative picture of working for REI and that if you don’t sell enough memberships, it’s bad news as that is the overwhelming metric that matters. That commenter was far from the only one to rail about working conditions.
Reddit AMAs, Twitter chats and other free-flowing forums that allow executives to interact directly with a large number of people hold appeal for numerous reasons, ranging from a desire to make the CEO seem more accessible to a genuine desire to shift from one-way communications to a two-way dialogue. For any business considering a CEO Twitter Chat, Reddit AMA or similar forum, there are a handful of strategies to consider:
- Reaching an unreachable audience – The controversial guests who appeared on The Jon Stewart Show who succeeded are the ones who fully understood what they were getting into. The ones who knew they were going to take their hits, could be good-natured about it, and still effectively get their messages across. There may be times when the audience you are trying to reach is difficult to access via traditional public relations, marketing, advertising and social media. If the target audience is critical to your business as a CEO or career success as an actor, then a case can be made to evaluate these higher risk opportunities.
- Weigh risks vs. rewards – What is the goal of a Reddit AMA, or Twitter chat? They must be clearly defined, and the marketing/social team must put significant efforts into preparation and execution – without making it look like an overly rehearsed, staged event. Think carefully about what the best-case scenario payoff is, relative to the viral risks of hosting a Twitter chat or AMA gone wrong.
- Be wary of CEO hubris – Even if you lay out the challenges of a series such as AMA, many CEOs will feel that it won’t happen to them. That they can be funny and witty and disarm even the most hostile questions. If you view these types of opportunities as something to “win” or “lose”, you will lose. The goal should be to communicate desired messages and understand that not everyone will respond favorably.
- You can’t cherry pick questions – Some of the most universally panned AMAs and Twitter chats have as much about what the interviewee didn’t say as it was about what they said. Ignoring tough questions or failing to answer many questions at all can draw even more scorn then giving bad answers, because it will be apparent the CEO and handlers are trying to tightly control the session and use it purely as a marketing vehicle.