Clear communication in a crisis at Reddit

redditThe social network Reddit is in trouble. Lots of its popular “subreddit” forums went dark as volunteer moderators protested the firing of Victoria Taylor, a popular Reddit staffer. But rather than stonewall, the company’s management is now attempting to tell the truth, clearly and transparently. It’s working.

Communication succeeds when it’s matched to the audience. The audience here is not investors or news media. Management needed to speak persuasively to the volunteer forum moderators. Like all social media people, those moderators are allergic to PR-speak. The cofounder of the company, Alexis Ohanian, emailed the moderators with a message of unusual clarity:

So. Things were… eventful this week. To put it mildly.

It started on Thursday when we let go one of our employees, Victoria Taylor, who had helped coordinate AMAs for the last couple years.

I can’t publicly comment on why we made this decision, but I can talk about the way we handled it—we screwed up. Victoria worked extensively with the moderator teams [. . .] when she left, we didn’t have a great process in place to handle that transition and didn’t communicate it to those mods very well.

[. . .]

We’ve received the message, we’ve talked with a lot of moderators, and we’re going to get better. We know we’ve done a pretty terrible job at communicating. We know a lot of things on the site don’t work as well as you—and we—would like. We know there are a lot more issues and that the community as a whole is pretty unhappy with us right now.

Reddit CEO Ellen Pao followed up with her own apology:

We screwed up. Not just on July 2, but also over the past several years. We haven’t communicated well, and we have surprised moderators and the community with big changes. We have apologized and made promises to you, the moderators and the community, over many years, but time and again, we haven’t delivered on them. When you’ve had feedback or requests, we haven’t always been responsive. The mods and the community have lost trust in me and in us, the administrators of reddit.

[. . .]

We will improve tools, not just promise improvements, building on work already underway. [ . . .]

I know we’ve drifted out of touch with the community as we’ve grown and added more people, and we want to connect more. I and the team are committed to talking more often with the community, starting now.

Thank you for listening. Please share feedback here. Our team is ready to respond to comments.

Consider how different this is from most corporate communication (like the press release and email about Twitter’s CEO leaving).

  1. Alexis Ohanian and Ellen Pao use “I” and “we”. For example “we let go one of our employees” and “I and the team are committed to talking more often with the community.” These are statements of personal responsibility.
  2. They speak directly to the audience with “you.” For example, “a lot of things on the site don’t work as well as you—and we—would like.” This engages the reader in a conversation.
  3. The statements are short, declarative, and active. “When she left, we didn’t have a great process in place to handle that transition and didn’t communicate it to those mods very well.” And “We’ve received the message, we’ve talked with a lot of moderators, and we’re going to get better.”
  4. The apologies are sincere. This is not the typical “We’re sorry you felt bad” which is not a real apology. This is the CEO saying, literally, “We screwed up,” and following that up with specific things she and the management did wrong.

The response so far from redditors has been negative. There’s a lot of muck at the bottom of this well. But with these statements, management can start to climb out of the muck. They at least have the chance to succeed. And the moderators of the subreddits have made their content visible once again.

Most people in a crisis resort to defensive stonewalling. These managers didn’t. They obeyed their own reddiquette rules. You can learn from this. First, they issued no press release or even blog post — this was directed right at the site’s users and moderators. Second, they spoke directly like humans, rather than PR robots. And third, they opened up a dialogue with these key people, which can now continue.

Next time you want to say something to an audience, try it this way. It might just work better.

Graphic: Ars Technica

One response to “Clear communication in a crisis at Reddit

  1. “We screwed up. Not just on July 2, but also over the past several years. We haven’t communicated well, and we have surprised moderators and the community with big changes. We have apologized and made promises to you, the moderators and the community, over many years, but time and again, we haven’t delivered on them. ”

    The cynic in me asks, “what makes this time any different?”

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