Lessons from Nissan’s Reddit PR disaster

Last week, the PR team for Renault-Nissan decided to make a bold (or otherwise foolish) move to place the company’s CEO Carlos Ghosn on Reddit for one of the site’s, Ask Me Anything (AMA) sessions, from the Detroit Auto show.

It blew up to epic proportions as the team struggled to keep up with questions, with many going unanswered. Worse, the company had to fend off accusations of astroturfing, as Redditors and the media cried foul over suspicions its PR team was seeding questions on the site.

This happened when users started probing about the authenticity of questions being asked from new users who seemed to have no history on the site.

Was Nissan guilty of astroturfing?

For example, here are some questions picked up by Mashable from users with no prior account history on Reddit – igniting suspicion on the site:

“What was your first car?”, by Smodizzle007 (no account history except for that question).

“Hello Mr Ghosn, first off thanks for doing an AMA! Second, I am new to car sales and have recently been hired at a Nissan dealership, do you have any advice for a new Nissan salesman?” (question was from an account that has since been deleted).

“How do you intend to solve the issue of inclement weather with fully autonomous vehicles? Will they be able to deal with snow and ice?” The question came from Sluggyjohnson (no account history except for that question).

“Hi Carlos, I’m a diehard Datsun/Nissan fan that is very glad to see how well the company has done with you at the helm and hoping to see many more years of continued success. My question is how you see hydrogen fuel cells playing a part in electric vehicles and if Nissan/Renault are investing, or planning to invest in this technology, directly or through partnerships? Thank you and regards, Doug.” The question came from BigDoug75, (no account history except for that question).

“Extremely obvious, considering how all the questions that are positive and name very specific products are the only ones that get answers. Answers that all plug their products. Again, why do the mods allow things like this through, but “internet celebrities” (whom many would honestly love to know about) are banned? This AMA is the most blatant PR stunt I’ve seen. Seriously, read these freaking questions and answers and tell me they don’t seem utterly staged,” complained Reddit user chrisman01.

While a spokesperson for Reddit told the media the number of questions from new users was not uncommon, the affair still earned Nissan more negative than positive press.

The issue of inauthenticity

While the benefit of doubt needs to be given to Nissan and its team, experts critiqued the execution of it.

“As a general PR strategy, the seeding of questions is not unusual or uncommon. However, in today’s social media age where perception is stronger than the truth, such a tactic is no longer as effective,” said digital agency QED’s Freda Kwok.

“Interaction on open platforms should be kept as genuine and sincere as possible – if there are no questions coming in, then the brand should take it as a feedback and look into the issues which may have led to the lack of interest in the first place.”

Don Anderson, managing director of We Are Social Singapore, said while Nissan deserved the benefit of the doubt, it was clear the team was ill-prepared for the medium.

“On review of the comments made by the CEO in the AMA, it’s clear he and his team of advisors had very little grasp of how the Reddit community functions and the expectation of its members from anyone who steps up in front of them. This is a community built on authenticity, not PR sound bites or setups.”

“Any business leader who willingly opens up the floor to Redditors needs to ensure they are seen as a human being – and this comes through adjusting their tone and voice to suit, not to mention the willingness to veer from a preset agenda – in order to earn the community’s respect and manage the conversation.”

However, Bob Pickard, chairman of Asia Pacific for The Huntsworth Group, said credit should be given to Nissan for attempting to engage in a new way.

“With innovations such as their content studio, Nissan in recent years have pushed the PR envelope and been ahead of the curve on corporate communications,” he said.

“However, this is an opportunity for corporate learning and how to do things better next time – especially when dealing with a powerful PR asset like Carlos Ghosn, such a highly respected CEO.

“A lot of people think about digital as an extension of brand marketing, but where social media meets corporate communications – such as this case – is where the most advanced degree of senior experience and skill needs to be well applied.”

Handling Reddit with class

Ironically, the year before, Nissan scored a marketing jackpot on the site, launching a campaign on it with Amazon. It hosted a thread asking users “If you could have one thing from Amazon, what would it be?” and rewarded users with the most creative responses. The promotion ended with a massive Amazon box showing up in a Wisconsin town, showing Amazon had actually delivered a Nissan.

Nissan, along with a camera crew, had driven the box around the area, and a picture of the delivery was posted on the site and went on to be one of the top posts.

Leaders who have also gone on Reddit fairly successfully were Barack Obama in 2012 and Bill Gates in 2014. Obama went on Reddit for 30 minutes, managing deftly answers to both political concerns as well as cheekier ones such as, “What’s the recipe for the White House’s beer?” See his AMA here.

Gates went on Reddit to promote work for his Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, but also added insightful personal touches such as his relationship with Steve Jobs, and his decision to leave his children US$10 million in their trust funds. See his AMA here.

We Are Social’s Anderson gives a few pointers for brands on the platform:

  1. Identify your objectives for using the platform: Is it to promote a new product, service, methodology or a personality from the company itself? What are your expected outcomes from engaging the Reddit community? Are you simply looking to drive awareness or change perceptions about the organisation or the individual leading the conversation from the brand side? How can the community really add value? And better yet, how are you adding value to the community?
  2. Prepare a set list of responses, but know that you may have to deviate from those canned responses. Responses should always be personalised. Use your prepared responses carefully. Don’t cut and paste.
  3. Identify and agree up front on the type of tone and voice you intend to use in front of the Reddit community. Make it an honest, approachable, relaxed voice and avoid at all costs sounding like someone who is sitting in a boardroom delivering PR sound bites or a prepared script.
  4. Expect the unexpected. Map out different scenarios of where the conversation could go off course and result in controversial questions from the community, and how you would expect to respond in this situation.
  5. Provide solid proof the individual is indeed “human” and has an established personality or presence in social. Share a Twitter handle. Cite prior online conversations the brand’s representative has engaged across, but share with a sincere voice.
  6. Select a mix of questions to respond to, including ones that may not be on target to your brand promotion objectives.
  7. Consider recruiting an independent moderator for a live AMA, who can help manage the conversation and the stream of questions, and to establish up front what is acceptable behaviour within the session from participants.