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REI's Reddit Experience Shows Brands Need to Be Ready to Take the Tough Questions

AMA quickly turned into forum on employee frustrations

REI's Reddit talk didn't go as planned. YouTube

REI will be closing its stores on Black Friday and paying 12,000 employees to take the day off, a move that has generated lots of goodwill—except on Reddit.

The outdoor retailer's CEO, Jerry Stritzke, took to Reddit on Tuesday evening for an Ask Me Anything (AMA) session to talk about why the chain would be closed the day after Thanksgiving. 

"You might have heard about us recently when we announced that we would be closing all of our stores on Black Friday this year," wrote Stritzke. "I have my team here helping me answer questions, so go easy on me."

Unfortunately for Stritzke, Reddit did not go easy on him.

While the discussion initially centered on the retailer's #OptOutside campaign, the conversation quickly steered toward a former employee's complaints about how aggressively REI pushes its membership sales.

The AMA's most popular comment came from a user named annonemp who claimed to work for REI in the past and said he or she was marginalized by the company for selling too few memberships. The comment received a net upvote score of more than 5,500:

REI's AMA had generated more than 3,400 comments by Wednesday evening. Many (from customers and employees alike) lauded the company, but quite a few were critical. 

One part-time employee praised Stritzke's transparency but asked why the company's 401(k) investment plan was only open to employees who work 20 hours a week or more. A full-time employee said the company uses too many part-timers, making it difficult to maintain full-time status and benefits.

Several employees asked for a "living wage," to which Stritzke replied that the company will be (in some markets) rolling out hourly wages in the $15 range in 2016.

All in all, the AMA was a mixed bag for the CEO and certainly not a coup of positive PR. And while Stritzke didn't address all his critics, he also didn't dodge the tough questions completely. 

The event highlighted that Reddit can still be a challenging forum for brands looking for publicity. 

In July, CEO Ellen Pao abruptly left the company after Redditors revolted against leadership moves such as the firing of Victoria Taylor, Reddit's former director of talent who organized the AMAs.

In recent months, Reddit has been trying to revamp its image. In October, it launched a news site called Upvoted and its first branded content work for Google.

In an email to Adweek, Stritzke said he enjoyed the AMA experience. "It's an incredibly passionate and engaged community," he wrote. "I value and encourage transparency from the people who work with me and the people whose lives we touch. We do a huge number of things at REI to engage with employees and drive transparency and so discussing things like what it means to be a membership organization are normal practice. That's vital because our members are actually the owners of REI.

"About the Reddit thread specifically—this is a completely legitimate conversation (how we invite people to join the co-op and how we measure employee performance). It's an issue we're currently focused on and so I plan to dig into the question more deeply. We will have a collective conversation about this issue. This will include conversations in our stores. If I'm not happy with what we find, we'll make a change."

In addition, Stritzke returned to Reddit to respond to the negative chatter when he updated the discussion's original thread earlier today.

"When I signed off yesterday at 6PM PST, this AMA only had 300 comments and I did my best to make sure all the top questions were answered (as well as some fun and obscure questions)," wrote Stritzke. "We knew that coming into Reddit was a new frontier for us with a certain amount of risk, but I want you to know we're committed to this community and to being honest about REI. I see a lot of value in hearing from our employees and members in a candid and anonymous setting like this. Thank you for the good conversation and holding us accountable."

Stritzke also returned to post a lengthy response to the question of aggressive membership sales:

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