Is Your Brand Prepared To Answer Anything?

Of the macro social news sites, Reddit has easily become my favorite over the past 4 years or so. The community, unlike Digg, gets close to a true model of diversity, aggregation and incentives: the three elements that come together to create social scientist Scott Page’s diversity prediction theorem.

Reddit has a subreddit that is quite popular called IAmA (which = I Am A) where someone starts a thread, noting who they are and invites the community to  AMA (which = Ask Me Anything). It’s a very popular section having more than 280,000 subscribers at the time of creating this post.

Obviously Reddit has influence, but this section in particular is well-respected by the web community as a whole. To the point there have been IAmA’s by everyone from a Marine One Crew Chief who flew several presidents, to 74-time winning Jeopardy champion Ken Jennings and pretty much anything you can imagine in between.

While some very large companies really mess up the opportunity of building a relationship with web communities like Reddit, you still have to applaud the fact that they’re even trying. Which brings us to today’s example of something I recently witnessed over at Reddit but wanted to share here.

What happened is an employee from McDonald’s started an IAmA, titled: I Am A 5 Year McDonald’s Employee. FML AMA. The cool part about IAmA is the Reddit community has allowed users to not just post anonymously, but also confirm who they are. In this particular thread, the user did complete that process, confirming their employment at McDonald’s.

It’s worth reading through the questions and answers as it is a fascinating inside view of this consumer brand. But I was left scratching my head, because nowhere in the thread of 3,700+ comments was any hint that McDonald’s decided to input to the discussion, correct any of the misguided facts, note what might be specific to that one location (but not across the brand) or even acknowledge and take ownership on some issues (like “we totally understand this is an issue and we’re working on that”). It’s not so much that I even want them to take a particular response approach. It’s their total absence that is glaring.

There is no way a company that large isn’t listening to discussions about their brand. Especially ones shared with 280,000+ people on a site made up of influential, well-connected users. I wanted to know more, so like any good blogger I sent a quick Tweet to @McDonalds asking for some type of response. And silence, yet their Twitter bio does set expectation they are listening, by stating (emphasis mine):

Welcome to the Official McDonald’s USA Twitter page! We’re here to listen and learn from all of our fans and followers. Check out the link to meet our team.

In fact, McDonalds even started following me shortly after, so they definitely read my Tweet. If they are participating in one community such as Twitter they are a part of the larger community of the web. Social media doesn’t happen in silos. Also, coincidentally enough, a “key McDonald’s executive” had previously submitted an IAmA (although this one was never confirmed real).

In a previous role as director of digital strategy for Pierson Grant Public Relations I was part of a team who helped several large QSR (Quick Service Restaurant) brands make their initial steps into social media. And again and again we proved significant value in consulting them to actively responding to digital reputation issues or even basic questions on the social web. In all cases when the approach was genuine and came from the right place, smart web communities appreciated the brand cared enough to respond. In fact, users frequently understood and empathized with the brand when they were trying to take the necessary corrective action. To the point future conversations in the community would reference the previous, noting how team members behind the company are listening and actually care.

The web has always and will continue to be a referential medium, for better or worse. Prepare for it and be ready to respond, and in time you can patch issues. Or remain silent and risk forever yielding your reputation to rumors, myths, competitors or those who may not have the full story. Which will continue to be highlighted indefinitely.

I’m not saying McDonald’s doesn’t care. I really think they do. But not just McDonald’s, all brands, as the subreddit name implies, need to be prepare to answer anything or risk setting expectation with the web that they aren’t interested in being a part of discussions. It basically sends the message we shouldn’t be interested in joining theirs if they don’t want to be a part of ours.