Reddit: Should PR venture into the ‘darker side’ of social media?

Sinister threads on the social network could be where your target audience is lurking. Should you dive in?

By Alexander Garrett,

The posts have scary headings, ‘Deathiversary’, ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with me’, ‘I watched my dog die’, ‘I want to do something wrong’…

‘Fucked Up Thoughts’ is one of the darker corners of Reddit, a forum on the social media platform that styles itself “the front page of the internet”. In the group – known as a ‘subreddit’ – users share their most sinister urges and disturbing memories with others.

Moderators, who are volunteers, must keep an eye out for offensive comments, including those that are aimed at anyone in a fragile state of mind. They get abuse when they do intercept a comment.

And for some there’s an even bigger price to pay.

As part of a recent investigation, website Engadget spoke to moderators who’d received death and rape threats; they described moderating as ‘thankless’, and charged San Francisco-based Reddit with failing to look after the mental health of its foot soldiers.

A moderator known as ‘xjr’, who monitors the r/Apple and r/Android forums, says: “What motivates me to moderate is to improve the subreddit that I, as a user, visit regularly and participate in [but] … people curse me or harass me by private message.”

Why would you, as a communications professional, want to venture into this crucible?

One simple answer is the numbers. According to web statistics site Alexa, Reddit is the fifth most visited website in the US and the ninth in the UK, with 330 million monthly users. There are approximately 850,000 subreddits on the site, generating 11 million new posts each month and 2.8 million comments a day, according to the website Digital Trends.


Although Reddit has its share of edgy content, it also covers just about everything people are interested in or passionate about, from politics to computer games, and from relationships to pet videos.

The way it works, for the uninitiated, is that registered users – ‘Redditors’ – can vote on any post they see, with a thumbs up or down. The most popular threads are then propelled to the top of the home page.

For brands, and the PR agencies behind them, Reddit is something of a paradox. On the one hand, this is where many of your diehard fans are to be found. Pick a video game, a brand of sneakers, a designer label or even a soft drink, and there will almost certainly be a whole Reddit community talking about it. They are often highly savvy consumers, discussing the latest product news and innovations in micro detail. Yet, at the same time, Reddit users hate being covertly marketed to.

Reddit’s official policy is to encourage those who want to promote their company or brand to do it within the confines of what is paid for. “Please don’t promote outside of ad space,” it says.

“A little bit of self-promotion is typically okay, but Reddit is not inherently a promotional tool. Using it organically to push your product or brand can backfire, anger the community and possibly result in a ban on your account.”

One option is to pay for display ads, which are seen by users according to an auction-based system. Another is to sponsor an existing user -created post about your brand, with its author’s permission – this is called a ‘promoted user post’. That said, when this innovation was announced a couple of years ago, it prompted an outpouring of concern, with more than 2,000 reactions.

A third option is to create an AMA (Ask Me Anything) session, in which an expert, celebrity, company or organisation with a message to communicate opens up to what is, in theory, a no-holds-­barred interrogation by the Reddit community.


For crisis managers, the AMA format can be a good way to tackle controversial issues head on.

Ken Cronin, chief executive of the UK trade body for fracking, UK Onshore Oil and Gas (UKOOG), hosted an AMA session in 2017.

Cronin says: “When you work in oil and gas you don’t get a huge amount of time to actually talk to people, so being asked direct questions and giving direct answers is a good thing. There’s a lot of misinformation out there, but we’re not an industry that shies away from public engagement.”

The AMA was the idea of UKOOG’s communications officer, Katherine Gray, who says: “Facebook and Twitter are both targeting the same users, but the demographic of Reddit is quite different.

Nevertheless it’s telling that many PR firms have little or no Reddit expertise in-house and no case studies to show: an AMA is a great opportunity to directly engage with users, but it also carries risks. You could be asked some very difficult questions, and in principle you can’t pick and choose which to answer.

In January 2015, Nissan was suspected of only answering questions put up by its own employees – and got duly blasted. Earlier, in 2012, actor Woody Harrelson was vilified for refusing to answer any question that wasn’t about his new movie.

Experts advise keeping engagements simple. There’s nothing to stop companies or organisations commenting in response to any post as long as it’s relevant – for example, if there’s a factual inaccuracy that needs to be corrected.

Jai Kotecha, managing partner at Ogilvy & Mather, says: “A lot of brand activity is already being discussed on Reddit, so it provides an interesting platform for proactive comms or engagement. The opportunity is huge, but transparency is key.”

One lesson is not to hide your true identity. Redditors are quick to call out ‘astroturfing’, where bigger interests hide behind a fake grassroots group, or ‘shilling’, where a Redditor has been paid to promote something.

In 2017, when Electronic Arts, maker of the Star Wars Battlefront video games, defended its latest wheeze to charge for unlocking characters with the statement: “The intent is to provide players with a sense of pride and accomplishment for unlocking different heroes”, it was picked up as a commercial catchphrase and attracted a record 667,822 down votes.

Using Reddit carefully is going to become more important.

Previously, the worst bits of Reddit were corralled into private, subscriber only subreddits. But, in September 2018, the social network announced changes to the rules that hide forums from public view. That could mean unsavoury communications become even more common, and trolls more vitriolic.

Yet, despite the platform’s sometimes unwholesome content, some believe that Reddit, because of its user-led moderation, could be the social media channel that offers the best chance of a grown-up conversation. In January 2018, Wired magazine declared Reddit “our best hope for civil discourse online”.

With Facebook and Twitter under relentless pressure to clean up their act, this openly darker platform could be a new frontier worth exploring.

Alexander Garrett is editor of WPP’s Atticus Journal

Illustrations by Eoin Ryan

A version of this article was first published in Influence magazine, Q1 2019.


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