Reddit as a new platform for public relations: Organizations' use of dialogic principles and their publics' responses in the subreddit IAmA
First Monday

Reddit as a new platform for public relations: Organizations' use of dialogic principles and their publics' responses in the subreddit IAmA by Phuong Hoan Le and Yuping Mao



Abstract
Applying Kent and Taylor’s (2002) dialogic communication framework, this study aims to explore in what ways organizations implement dialogic principles in the subreddit IAmA, a specific section of Reddit. This study also focuses on the less-researched publics’ side of computer-mediated PR. Twenty-three threads were purposively selected within the year-long timeframe of 1 February 2014 until 1 February 2015, including 40,903 comments of which 1,482 are responses from organizations. A qualitative content analysis was applied. The findings suggest that there is room for improvement in organizations’ use of dialogic principles and highlight the complexity of audience responses. While each dialogic principle can be argued to theoretically have a positive effect on these responses, audiences on Reddit especially hold transparency, open communication, and honesty in high regard and expect organizations’ threads to have extrinsic and/or intrinsic value for the publics besides having value for the organization in marketing and PR context.

Contents

Introduction
Theory
Research method
Results
Discussion and conclusion

 


 

Introduction

Reddit (http://www.reddit.com/) is a social medium, in which its users share and vote on Web content. As of 1 January 2015, the site ranked ninth in the U.S. and 31st worldwide according to Alexa (http://www.alexa.com/) based on the average daily visitors and page views of that month, and has counted roughly 71.25 billion pageviews as well as 54.9 million posts and submissions in 2014 (Kristine, 2014). Given the popularity and interactivity of Reddit, some organizations have innovatively used it as a tool for public relations (PR). This study is one of the first to examine how businesses can use Reddit for PR. Applying Kent and Taylor’s (2002) dialogic communication theoretical framework in a qualitative content analysis, this research explores how organizations implement dialogic principles in the subreddit IAmA to engage the public and how Reddit users respond to those dialogues.

This study focuses on the subreddit IAmA (i.e., /r/IAmA) specifically. A subreddit can be briefly defined as a subcommunity within Reddit. In /r/IAmA, people or organizations host AMA (“Ask Me Anything”) sessions, allowing the public to ask them any questions for a certain timespan. This is accompanied with an introduction of the host, for example, in terms of profession or personal achievements (hence, the letters “I Am” in the name). Such organizational-public dialogues make /r/IAmA a good source to study the principles of dialogic communication. It also forms an interesting case to study because of the lack of variety in studied social media platforms (Kent and Taylor, 2014). Moreover, out of hundreds of thousands of subreddits, /r/IAmA is one of the most popular ones with roughly seven million subscribers as of 1 January 2015. It is also one of the 50 default subreddits, which are featured on Reddit’s homepage.

This study can contribute to the PR literature theoretically and practically. First, PR scholars have advised to focus on the effectiveness of social media use and thus also the publics’ reception instead of merely describing social media use by organizations and/or only using an organizational perspective (e.g., Kent, 2014; McAllister-Spooner, 2009; Kent and Taylor, 2010; Ye and Ki, 2012). This study therefore includes an analysis of the commentary of organizations’ audiences on Reddit. Secondly, PR scholars and methodologists have suggested to focus on more fundamental concepts and theories which will allow a study to make theoretical contributions (e.g., Kent, 2014). Accordingly, the analysis extends Kent and Taylor’s (2002) dialogic communication theoretical framework to PR on Reddit. Finally, from a practical perspective, online-relationship building becomes increasingly important to organizations (Sung and Kim, 2014; Dijkmans, et al., 2015), and PR practitioners are interested in learning how to use social media for this goal (e.g., DiStaso, et al., 2011). It is thus important to explore the use of a relatively new medium, and to focus on the organization-public dialogues as a whole instead of just the organizational side. As such, the research questions are as follows:

RQ1: In what ways do organizations implement dialogic principles in /r/IAmA?
RQ2: How do redditors respond to the organizations’ use of dialogic principles in /r/IAmA?

 

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Theory

What is Reddit?

The name Reddit is based on the words read it, and — unintentionally but fittingly — Reddit is also Latin for render or to submit something for consideration or approval (http://www.reddit.com/wiki/). Users of Reddit are called redditors, and generally includes registered and non-registered users. Anyone can browse through Reddit, but only registered users can start threads by posting a text and/or sharing links to online media content elsewhere on the Web, such as newspaper articles, videos, and photos. These threads are the main form of content on Reddit. Registered users can also comment on any post, and upvote or downvote any post and comment. The voting determines how the post will be ranked on its community page and hence on the homepage.

Some describe Reddit as an aggregator type of social medium (e.g., Coombs, 2012) or social news site (e.g., Holcomb, et al., 2013). However, Reddit is better understood as a network of interlinked communities in which each community is based on threads about topics of shared interests. Calling it a network of interlinked communities does not mean Reddit is like a social network site though. Reddit is more about enabling conversations about the shared content than about self-presentation and interaction within one’s social network (Massanari, 2015). One of the most important characteristics is that redditors are pseudoanonymous — they are only anonymous to the extent that their accounts are not tied to their real-world identities, but their logged activities can reveal a sense of identity.

/r/IAmA is one of many subreddits of Reddit. Subreddits typically contain content related to anything from general curiosities to niche interests such as /r/AskHistorians, /r/chemicalreactiongifs and /r/birdswitharms, or revolves around a content type, such as the AMAs in /r/IAmA and images in /r/pics. As a subcommunity, subreddits also often enforce their own content and behavior rules on top of the general ones. For example, one important rule in /r/IAmA is to show proof of one’s identity when hosting an AMA or “Ask Me Anything”, i.e., a session in which redditors can ask the host anything. The more general reddiquette is an informal, changing document which reflects the values of many redditors. For example, the reddiquette specifies that users should be transparent about how and why they edited their comment or post. For a more extensive overview of Reddit’s current functionalities and characteristics, it is best to visit the Reddit Wiki page (http://www.reddit.com/wiki/).

To further understand what Reddit and /r/IAmA are, it is helpful to look at the Web site. Figure 1 shows the landing page of /r/IAmA which provides a list of posts that are ranked according to a visitor’s choice of metric such as popularity or newness. The homepage of Reddit is similar but shows posts from multiple subreddits. Also, a subreddit usually features a customized sidebar: sections on the right side feature important and helpful information for visitors of this subreddit. In case of /r/IAmA, users can easily submit an AMA (i.e., file a request to register an AMA), request an AMA, and hide AMA requests from the /r/IAmA landing page. Here, one can also find a short overview of officially scheduled AMAs. Clicking on a post in /r/IAmA will lead to a page that is formatted like Figure 2. This page starts with the post that starts the thread followed by a comment section.

 

Zoomed out, cropped version of the landing page of the subreddit IAmA
 
Figure 1: Zoomed out, cropped version of the landing page of the subreddit IAmA (screenshot taken on 25 June 2015, https://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/).
Note: Larger version of figure available here.

 

 

Zoomed out, cropped version of an AMA session in the subreddit IAmA
 
Figure 2: Zoomed out, cropped version of an AMA session in the subreddit IAmA (screenshot taken on 25 June 2015, https://www.reddit.com/29i8zo).
Note: Larger version of figure available here.

 

Public relations practice on Reddit

Why Reddit? Research on Reddit has involved Internet trolling (Bergstrom, 2011), Internet memes (Miltner, 2014), online protesting and resistance (Loudon, 2014), and Reddit’s voting system (Van Mieghem, 2011), but the medium to date remains largely new in PR literature. However, as will be argued below, Reddit has potential for PR practices and theory development.

To start with PR practice, Reddit is a highly popular and interactive social medium, and millennials form a large part of this community (Dugan and Smith, 2013). Millennials are argued to be at their peak in earning and spending, and therefore form an interesting target market for businesses (Fromm and Garton, 2013). Unsurprisingly, several businesses have already ventured into Reddit (Wright and Hinson, 2014). Whether these attempts were successful, remains a question, and the potential of Reddit for PR calls for more research that can inform practice. For example, in reference to the AMEC strategic model (https://amecorg.com/framework), research to date has mostly focused on the inputs and neglected other facets such as outputs, out-takes, and outcomes.

Meanwhile, there is a lack of variation in PR research on social media platforms and audiences’ perspectives. Scholars tend to stick to analyzing organizations’ Web sites, Facebook profiles, and Twitter accounts. This lack of variety is noteworthy because both scholars (e.g., Ye and Ki, 2012) and PR practitioners (Aragón and Domingo, 2014; DiStaso, et al., 2011) have expressed interest in keeping up with the fast-changing Internet. Furthermore, Kent and Taylor (2010) suggest not to focus so much on the description of social media use by organizations, which leads to an organizational perspective, but to focus more on the effectiveness of social media use and thus the publics’ reception. This research call is echoed by other scholars (e.g., McAllister-Spooner, 2009; Ye and Ki, 2012). Therefore, this study focuses on publics’ responses to organization’s use of dialogic principles organizations apply to engage the public in /r/IAmA.

Opportunities and challenges on Reddit. Regarding the public, PR researchers (e.g. Dijkmans, et al., 2015; Sung and Kim, 2014) and PR practitioners (Aragón and Domingo, 2014; Wright and Hinson, 2014) have reached the agreement that online relationship-building is critical for the survival and growth of organizations. Online relationship-building helps organizations prepare for organizational crises as dialogues play an important role in stakeholder perspective management (Janssen, et al., 2015; Lee, et al., 2013), and aid in finding and creating solutions to problems before news about the problems spread via word-of-mouth (Wigley and Zhang, 2011). More generally, computer-mediated PR allows organizations to directly communicate with stakeholders (Wright and Hinson, 2014), and to expand their response capacity and better understand the customers and competitive market (Aragón and Domingo, 2014).

However, social media are a “double-edged sword” (Ki and Nekmat, 2014). Social media are characterized by open communication with little to no control over what is being said and how fast information spreads (Hanna, et al., 2011). Social media empower stakeholders in terms of legal and technologic power (i.e., the right and possibility to voice opinions), social power as consumer dissatisfaction can result into a powerful collective action, and economic power with the ease of finding an alternative organization (Kucuk, 2012). It is not surprising that PR practitioners in Europe (Aragón and Domingo, 2014; Verhoeven, et al., 2012) and North America (DiStaso, et al., 2011; Wright and Hinson, 2014) perceive an attack on social media as a big threat to PR.

Other possible challenges relate to Reddit’s uniqueness. First, Reddit is pseudoanonymous (Massanari, 2015). Reddit accounts are anonymous to the extent that these are not necessarily linked to one’s real-world identity (unlike other popular social media such as Facebook). However, unlike truly anonymous online communities (e.g., 4Chan), registration is required to participate, and the user page displays one’s Reddit activity which can convey a consistent identity. Secondly, Reddit lacks strong gatekeepers. Massanari (2015) argues the latter allows dialogues “to be more democratic, more authentic, and more deliberative” [1], and the pseudoanonymity encourages both altruism and cynicism. Thirdly, in /r/IAmA especially, redditors “prize authenticity, candor, and transparency” [2]. It will be interesting to see how these characteristics affect public responses to AMAs held by organizations.

Use of dialogic principles on Reddit

To better understand online relationship building, Kent and Taylor (2002) constructed a conceptual framework of dialogic communication in the context of computer-mediated PR. Research on dialogues offers insights on what contributes to successful communication and how communication problems can be prevented (Traxler, 2012), and ultimately, how the audiences can be engaged by organizations, and how organization-public relationships can be created, maintained and facilitated (Kent and Taylor, 2014).

Kent and Taylor’s (2002) framework is not the same as their 1998 dialogic framework. The 2002 principles can be understood as the underlying, more theoretical principles whereas the 1998 ones are more pragmatic. Consequentially scholars have found Kent and Taylor’s (1998) framework well-suited for quantitative content analyses (e.g., Callison and Seltzer, 2010; Kim, et al., 2014; Linvill, et al., 2012).

Kent and Taylor’s (2002) framework features five dialogic principles: mutuality, empathy, propinquity, risk, and commitment. Mutuality encompasses collaboration and intersubjectivity between organizations and their publics as well as encompasses the spirit of mutual equality between the two parties. Empathy involves supportiveness in facilitating dialogues, communal orientation, and confirmation or acknowledgment of individuals’ thoughts and opinions. Empathy can then be understood as a precondition to establishing trust with the publics. Propinquity involves the organization’s immediacy of presence, a temporal flow (i.e., an organization seeks a future with the publics), and engagement of all parties of the public indiscriminately. Risk implicates vulnerability, unanticipated consequences, and the recognition of the strange otherness. Finally, commitment involves genuineness, commitment to interaction with the publics, and commitment to interpretation and understanding the publics.

Scholars found empirical evidence for the usefulness of dialogic principles. In a literature review from 2009 to 2014, the 1998 and 2002 dialogic frameworks have been adopted in analyses of diverse social media (mostly Facebook, Twitter, and organizations’ Web sites) of diverse organizations. For example, Callison and Seltzer (2010) found a significant relationship between the application of 1998 dialogic principles by the PR department of Southwest Airlines, a U.S. Fortune 500 company, and whether journalists perceive this department as more outstanding than the PR departments of other airlines. Journalists are also more likely to perceive Southwest Airlines’ media relations as responsive, accessible, and professional. Furthermore, Soon and Soh (2014) found Kent and Taylor’s (2002, 1998) dialogic principles helped a Singaporean government and its ministers improve organizational effectiveness and strengthen citizens’ support for their future policies.

Despite the aforementioned successful applications of Kent and Taylor’s (2002, 1998) dialogic principles, practitioners have not fully utilized the full potentials of all the dialogic principles. Based on a literature review of one decade’s worth of scholarly applications of these dialogic principles, McAllister-Spooner (2009) concluded that “the dialogic promise of the Web has not yet been realized” [3]. From 2009 to 2014, other scholars confirmed McAllister-Spooner’s conclusion (e.g., Callison and Seltzer, 2010; Soon and Soh, 2014). In addition, McAllister-Spooner (2009) proposed to further explore the media effectiveness, and to refine and standardize the measurements of dialogic principles, which could further inform practice.

This study therefore explores publics’ responses to the organizations’ use of dialogic principles by comparing the publics’ responses per AMA. This exploration may result in a refinement of the dialogic principles and may make it applicable to a broader set of Web sites. Based on this exploration, this study also discusses the opportunities on Reddit that PR practitioners have not considered or used yet.

 

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Research method

Research design

In this exploratory research, a sample of organizations’ threads in /r/IAmA was analyzed using a qualitative content analysis approach (Hsieh and Shannon, 2005). Generally, the unobtrusive nature of content analysis allows the real-life context to stay intact and undisturbed and thus free from response bias (Weber, 1990). Furthermore, using a qualitative approach is especially suitable for a more holistic interpretation of the data in its context (Cho and Lee, 2014).

This analysis was conducted in three phases. First, an initial exploration of organizations’ threads in /r/IAmA was conducted in order to create categories for threads. Then, using the findings of the initial exploration, a purposive sample of organizations’ threads was analyzed to explore the ways in which organizations implement dialogic principles (RQ1) and to explore how the organizations’ publics responded to their use of dialogic principles (RQ2).

Sampling process

/r/IAmA was chosen for the analysis for both practical and methodological reasons. As mentioned earlier, this subreddit is one of the popular defaults. It forms a relatively good source for finding organization-public dialogues on Reddit. Furthermore, dialogues can differ in format and style per subreddit, so limiting the analysis to one subreddit brings benefits regarding the comparability of cases. Also, the findings may have broader implications, because question-and-answer (Q&A) dialogues are not unique to /r/IAmA. Elsewhere on the Web, Q&A dialogues may take the form of a moderately static Frequently Asked Questions section of a Web site, or may take an interactive form on Q&A Web sites. Findings of the analysis of /r/IAmA then has broader implications beyond one medium.

As mentioned, this analysis was conducted in three phases. To start with, to explore /r/IAmA more generally, all its organization’s threads from 1 November 2014 to 1 February 2015 (N = 171) were sampled. This three-month timeframe was chosen to include the most recent trends on Reddit while allowing the threads to become virtually inactive. The coding process and results are described in the next section and the found characteristics of the threads are shown in Table 1.

 

Table 1: Characteristics considered for the case selection.
 DimensionCharacteristics
Content characteristicspost’s main purposecharitable efforts; expertise; products/services
post lengthshort (< 100 words); medium (101–200 words); long (> 200 words)
n commentslow (5–50 comments); medium (50–200 comments); high (> 200 comments)
n organization’s commentslow (< 20 comments); medium (20–40 comments); high (> 40 comments)
Organizational featurestype of organizationeducational organizations; governmental/political organizations; non-profit organizations (NPOs); for-profit organizations (FPOs)
organization’s sizestart-ups; small and medium organizations (SME); large organizations
target market global, i.e., anyone; U.S. citizens, i.e., either nation-wide or certain states/cities

 

For the two main analyses that answer RQ1 and RQ2, one purposive sample was used. Organizations’ threads in /r/IAmA were selected from a yearlong timeframe from 1 February 2014 to 1 February 2015. This timeframe was chosen to take into account seasonal fluctuations and recent trends in /r/IAmA, yet also allowing enough time for the threads to become virtually inactive. The threads were sampled using a CloudSearch syntax to find threads on random dates generated by Random.org. Later, threads with a specific characteristic were searched to ensure enough variation in cases in terms of organizational features and content characteristics (see Table 1). This is important, because organizations’ PR activities can differ per type of organization. For example, U. S. NPOs were found to mainly use Twitter to disseminate information rather than building communities, promoting or mobilizing (Lovejoy and Saxton, 2012).

Case selection ended when data saturation was reached, i.e., until no new categories were found and no new data fits the coding (Boeije, 2010). Twenty-three threads were sampled, which together received 40,903 comments (meaning an average of 1,778 comments per thread). Included among these comments are 1,482 comments from the organizations who started the thread (meaning an average of 64 comments per organization). The selected cases are listed in Table 2.

 

Table 2: Selected cases for the in-depth content analyses.
Organization with brief descriptionPost date
University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), public research university, Los Angeles, CA, USA.2014-02-26
Taco Bell, fast food restaurant chain based out of Irvine, CA, USA.2014-03-27
Prismatic Games LLC, game developer, Tucson, AZ, USA.2014-03-29
Fitbay.com, clothing mobile app start-up, Copenhagen, Denmark.2014-03-29
Trophy Scars, experimental rock band, Morristown, NJ, USA.2014-04-16
Our America Initiative, political advocacy committee, Salt Lake City, UT, USA.2014-04-22
Cloudflare, Inc., Web site performance and security company, San Francisco, CA, USA. 2014-05-02
Widmer Brothers Brewing, beer brewery, Portland, OR, USA.2014-05-13
Microsoft Power BI, business analytics service, Redmond, WA, USA.2014-06-10
Development and Relief Foundation (IDRF), non-profit organization connecting Canadians and Muslims, Toronto, Canada.2014-06-30
Watsi, healthcare crowdsourcing platform start-up, San Francisco, CA, USA.2014-07-10
Crunchyroll, video streaming service, San Francisco, CA.2014-07-18
Wildlife SOS (WSOS), non-profit wildlife conservation, New Delhi, India.2014-07-19
Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, Web series talk show, Culver City, CA, USA.2014-07-04
Represent.us, grassroots anti-corruption campaign, Florence, MA, USA.2014-08-12
Our America Initiative, political advocacy committee, Salt Lake City, UT, USA.2014-08-26
Sir Mix-A-Lot (Anthony Ray), music producer, Seattle, WA, USA.2014-09-20
United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), humanitarian NPO, East Jerusalem.2014-09-23
Science in the News (SITN), graduate student group at the Harvard Graduate School of the Arts and Sciences, Boston, MA, USA.2014-10-25
Ohio Supercomputer Center (OSC), research and computational science education service provider, Columbus, OH, USA.2014-11-17
Skiplagged, airfare search engine, New York City, NY, USA.2014-12-04
Renault–Nissan BV, automobile manufacturers’ strategic partnership, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.2015-01-12
OpenSecrets.org — Center for Responsive Politics, non-profit research group tracking money in politics, Washington, DC, USA.2015-01-30

 

Several threads were excluded from this study. Excluded threads include ambiguous cases that focus on the individual themselves or their persona instead of the organization such as the thread by Maisie Williams, actor from the television series Game of Thrones (https://www.reddit.com/2u752m). So-called crossposts were excluded too, because they merely announce a dialogue elsewhere on Reddit.

Coding process

First, an initial exploration of organizations’ threads in /r/IAmA was conducted using a ‘conventional’ qualitative content analysis approach (Hsieh and Shannon, 2005). Mayring (2000) would call this approach ‘inductive category development’. Such an approach does not make use of preconceived categories or other theoretical insights, and, instead, involves adding categories based on the text and making connections between these categories.

Usually, the units of analysis in qualitative content analysis are based on individual themes rather than physical linguistic units (Zhang and Wildemuth, 2009), but in this study they are based on the structure of Reddit as this maintains the nature of the dialogues more accurately. The post that started the thread, in which the organization introduces itself, was the unit of analysis for all categories in the initial exploration, except metadata such as ‘number of comments’ which were simply copied from the thread. This exploration was useful to gain an understanding of the type of organizations that use /r/IAmA, and to guide the sampling for a more in-depth content analysis.

Secondly, a ‘directed’ approach (Hsieh and Shannon, 2005) was applied on a purposive sample of organizations’ threads in /r/IAmA to explore the ways in which organizations implement dialogic principles (RQ1). Mayring (2000) would call this approach ‘deductive category development’, because it starts with theory rather than observations. Unlike quantitative content analysis, the qualitative variant leaves enough room for interpretation, and the ‘directed’ qualitative variant specifically is useful “to validate and extend conceptually a theoretical framework or theory” [4]. In this study, the applied theoretical framework is Kent and Taylor’s (2002) dialogic framework.

Each comment in the sampled organizations’ threads formed a unit of analysis. When data could not be coded using the original dialogic framework, these were later re-examined to decide whether the framework needed an adjustment or a new (sub)principle. No principles were added, but it should be noted that the descriptions of the principles were adjusted to fit a more dynamic and interactive online medium than what the framework was originally created for.

Finally, to explore how the organizations’ publics responded to their use of dialogic principles (RQ2), a ‘conventional’ qualitative content analysis approach (Hsieh and Shannon, 2005) was used on the same purposive sample of organizations’ threads in /r/IAmA. It is challenging, if not, impossible to connect a single dialogic principle to a certain response. Therefore, this qualitative exploration considered several content and context characteristics as indicated in Table 1 and categorizations such as ‘personal questions’ and ‘attempts at humor’. We then sought to explore how these characteristics and categorizations linked with the dialogic (sub)principles. As new, alternative and contradictory ways publics’ comments can be linked to the dialogic framework kept emerging, it was necessary to continuously revisit previously analyzed threads.

Finally, the coding schemes for the ‘directed’ and ‘conventional’ approaches were tested by a redditor who has used this forum actively since 2012 and compared with the work of the principal coder. Four threads were randomly sampled from the original purposive sample (N = 23). The second coder received instructions on the coding scheme and explanation on the theoretical framework, and the principal coder was available in person or by phone throughout the coding process in case the second coder had questions. Upon completion, the results of the second coding were compared with the coding of the principal coder, and the results of the comparison were discussed. No revisions needed to be made in the coding schemes.

 

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Results

The use of dialogic framework in /r/IAmA

The organizations’ use of Kent and Taylor’s (2002) dialogic principles is summarized in Table 3 and further elaborated upon below.

 

Table 3: Organizations’ use of dialogic principles (Kent and Taylor, 2002) in the subreddit IAmA.
DimensionsSub-dimensionsOrganization’s use of dialogic principles summarized
mutualityspirit of mutual equalityby using personal/informal tone of voice instead of corporate voice; by spending enough time with the publics
collaborative orientationby highlighting how the thread is mutually beneficial
propinquityimmediacy of presenceby responding in timely fashion
temporal flowby stating to return to Reddit and keep in touch with redditors; by looking for new employees, or by requesting to keep in touch through means such as social media (see dimension “redirecting the visitor to the organization”)
engagementengagement of all parties as indicated by organizations’ response strategy in which questions were not skipped
empathysupportivenessby providing answer with links to more in-depth information; by requesting more information on behalf of the publics; by creating new supportive material for an answer
communal orientationby focusing on common goals or interests; by addressing existing communities
confirmationby showing gratitude for the publics’ support, care or concern; by confirming a complaint has been heard
riskvulnerabilityVulnerability to public’s doubts, hoaxes, and distractions
unanticipated consequencesthe thread is unrehearsed and spontaneous
recognition of strange othernessby recognizing that the Reddit community forms a heterogeneous group of unique individuals
commitmentcommitment to interpretationthe chance for misinterpretations can be lowered by providing answers with substance, by including links to more in-depth information, and by using follow-up questions.
commitment to conversationthe thread is mutually beneficial
genuinenessby being transparent about what was edited in a post or comment, why the organization held the AMA, how the questions are being chosen, and, if relevant, the poster’s political background

 

Mutuality. The principle mutuality refers to the acknowledgment that organizations and their publics are inseparable entities (Kent and Taylor, 2002). Organizations must recognize their relationships with the publics, and not view them as sources of income but as persons. Intersubjectivity is inherent to dialogues. They should therefore understand that dialogues are not about winning the argument but about collaboration. Overall, the analysis shows many organizations use the subprinciple spirit of mutual equality, but the collaborative orientation was rarely applied.

The spirit of mutual equality can be indicated in two ways. First, it can be indicated by organizations’ use of personal and informal tone of voice or ‘conversational, human voice’ (Kelleher, 2009) as opposed to corporate voice. Such a tone is appreciated and can entice more (personal) questions, like in the case of Taco Bell. When a redditor wondered what the worst thing is about being the president of Taco Bell, Niccol answered: “It is the greatest job ever. Only thing better would be the CEO.” This answer gained 2,946 points in votes and elicited more than 70 comments.

However, when using such a tone of voice, organizations risk sounding unprofessional. An inventive solution was shown by NPO Represent.Us that fights monetary corruption in politics by running a satirical campaign with fake politician Gil Fulbright for Senate. While Josh Silver, Represent.Us Director, answered questions from his own account in a serious and formal manner (corporate voice), the other played the role of the satirical character Gil and responded using a human conversational voice. An example is shown in Figure 3. This NPO is the only AMA in the analyzed sample that used both the conversational, human voice and the corporate voice.

 

Answers by two representatives of the NPO Represent.Us
 
Figure 3: Answers by two representatives of the NPO Represent.Us (screenshot taken on 25 June 2015, https://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/).
Note: Larger version of figure available here.

 

Secondly, the analysis of the audience commentary shows that redditors respect that the representatives of the organizations are spending their time in answering questions, and also expect that organizations value the redditors’ time. This expectation was also found by Massanari (2015). The AMA by Renault-Nissan Alliance, in which redditors complained about the company not responding enough, forms a good example which will be discussed in more detail later.

Collaborative orientation forms the second facet of mutuality. Kent and Taylor (2002) argue organizations should acknowledge that individuals may have a different outlook on issues, and dialogues should aim to find mutual understanding. The lack of gatekeeping on social media strengthens the sense of equality, because dialogues are no longer top-down or one-way (Soon and Soh, 2014). Indeed, Reddit dialogues were found “to be more democratic, more authentic, and more deliberative” [5]. Among the analyzed AMAs, organizations were not found arguing with its publics to prove their rights. In the rare occasions that an organization did disagree publicly, this was usually done carefully. For example, to prove the NPO was nonpartisan, OpenSecrets.org provided links to 13 news articles that contained evidence.

Propinquity. The dialogic principle of propinquity refers to nearness in place, time or relationships (Kent and Taylor, 2002). In this analysis, the organizations showed immediacy of presence by responding in a timely fashion, which can be enhanced with teamwork. With a more diverse set of skills and knowledge, a team is more likely to respond faster and more in-depth than an individual. Teams can either answer questions from one account or from their own individual Reddit accounts. For example, Microsoft Power BI was presented by their product team of about 35 members who all answered from one account but signed their answers with their individual names and occupation. This thread received 143 comments, of which 49 are organizations’ responses. While a single account represents unity and clarifies organization-public relations, the use of individual accounts may result in a higher response speed and number of answers. In this study, only two AMAs explicitly made use of this team strategy.

The second facet of propinquity is temporal flow, which refers to organizations’ wish to construct a future with the public. This analysis indicates diverse ways of applying this subprinciple. First, many organizations suggested their publics to continue the dialogue elsewhere on the Web, while a few of them stated they would return to Reddit specifically to keep in touch with redditors. Wildlife SOS’ representatives included contact details in 12 out of 35 of their responses, e.g., “We welcome information being reported on info@wildlifesos.org.” Another method is to look for new employees. For example, the founders of NPO Watsi indicated they were looking for engineers several times during the AMA, even if the commentators did not explicitly state they would be interested in charitable activities besides donating money. This may be a fruitful method, because among the analyzed threads, the more popular ones usually include questions from redditors asking for career opportunities, especially internships.

The third facet of propinquity is engagement, which implies that dialogues should engage with and benefit all individuals that make up the public (Kent and Taylor, 2002). The best way to ensure the engagement of diverse publics seems to be answering the most upvoted questions, as redditors tend to upvote the questions they want organizations to answer. Not answering all questions was generally accepted by redditors, but only if the number of answers was perceived as reasonable and the public believes no questions were evaded. Organizations should also avoid answering only questions that would portray the company in a positive way, because this behavior can lead to controversy. As will be shown later, the Renault-Nissan Alliance’s AMA is exemplary of the negative consequences.

Empathy. The third principle empathy refers to the organizations’ support towards the publics’ interests (Kent and Taylor, 2002), and refers to the publics’ support towards the organizations. To utilize the subprinciple supportiveness, many organizations provided answers with links to more in-depth information, especially when it concerned more complex matters and/or when a claim needs to be supported. Occasionally, the organization’s representatives and their publics depend on external material to refer to a phenomenon or to support their claims or complaints, e.g., user ‘Asidious66’ uploaded a photo of his poorly-made breakfast during a thread by Taco Bell. Organizations also used links to provide more information when answering about complex matters. For example, Cloudflare answered to an IT-related question of a customer with a link to their blog post explaining the phenomenon “CNAME flattening service”.

It could be challenging for organizations to apply the communal orientation subprinciple. Explicit marketing/PR efforts entice negative publics’ responses on social media (Dekay, 2012). It is therefore important that organizations highlight how redditors and the organization are connected. Such a connection can be indicated through shared interests/goals. For example, Wildlife SOS initiated an AMA on 18 July 2014, ten days after a newspaper article about them saving Raju the elephant made it to the front page of Reddit. Their AMA gained 396 comments and around 3,342 points. If they held an AMA sooner, they may have enticed more interactivity. They used a similar approach seven months later, but by then the newspaper article seemed to have been forgotten and the redditors had other interests. This later AMA enticed much less interactivity: 47 comments and 55 points. Thus, communal orientation — given that the shared interests/goals are still present — proved to be an effective strategy.

Finally, the facet confirmation is used by organizations to show gratitude for the publics’ support, care or concern, or to confirm a complaint has been heard. To show gratitude is something that most of the analyzed organizations did in their comments or at least when they notified that the thread had ended, e.g., “So exciting that you applied to UCLA,” and, “you guys are awesome.” Furthermore, responding to customer complaints is important. Taco Bell took them seriously, e.g., “I’m sorry. Private message me and we will make it right.” However, the number of comments was overwhelming for Taco Bell and many complaints were left unheard. Complaints in other analyzed popular threads were ignored. Hence, while most organizations seemed to use the principle confirmation well, there is room for improvement, especially concerning complaints.

Risk. Kent and Taylor (2002) proposed the risk dialogic principle that organizations should accept the risk that is inherent in organization-public dialogues. This principle has three features. First, the subprinciple vulnerability relates to the power of information (Kent and Taylor, 2002), such as concerns and claims from the public. On Reddit specifically, dialogues can entice vicious mob-like, justice-seeking behavior (Massanari, 2015). Secondly, unanticipated consequences imply that organizations’ threads in /r/IAmA should be unrehearsed and spontaneous (Kent and Taylor, 2002). That is, questions should not be planted by organizations nor should answers be written in advance. Finally, strange otherness should not be understood as a singularity. Even in a subcommunity, one thread might contain hundreds of dialogues between different actors, who are each unique and have different needs and priorities. An earlier-mentioned strategy is useful: the use of different organizational representatives could suffice the diverse segments of people that make up Reddit. As will be shown later, a good case study for risk is the AMA by the Renault-Nissan Alliance.

Commitment. The fifth dialogic principle (Kent and Taylor, 2002) is commitment, which includes commitment to interpretation, commitment to conversation, and genuineness. Commitment to interpretation refers to the effort that organizations put into working toward common understanding, and Kent and Taylor (2002) warned this is not so much about coming to the same agreement but more so about sharing the same meanings. The chance for misinterpretations can be lowered by providing answers with substance and by including links to more in-depth information, which, in turn, can be enabled by having the right people on team. For example, Microsoft Power BI was represented by the managers of almost every department, and Science in the News (SITN) had ten representatives representing nine different science fields. Additionally, organizations can ask follow-up questions, but this strategy has been applied by only a few organizations.

An organization’s thread in /r/IAmA shows commitment to conversation when the thread is mutually beneficial. This principle regards the purpose of dialogues (Kent and Taylor, 2002). Dialogues are not about winning the argument nor are they a tool to manipulate or exploit the audience. Instead, they argue organization-public dialogues should aim for mutual benefit. However, redditors have, to an extent, accepted that organizations use /r/IAmA as a platform for PR and marketing, as indicated by comments such as: “The taco bell PR people must be working overtime.” This is why the mutual benefit is so important. Indeed, as user Chrisbishyo commented: “PR is the goal of the person being asked the questions, but a good AMA is where the askers benefit from the thread too.”

Threads in /r/IAmA can be beneficial to the audience in ways ranging from intrinsic to extrinsic values. To exemplify the extrinsic values, Skiplagged focused on how the publics can save “lots of money” when buying airplane tickets found through their Web site. Most organizations instead provided more intrinsic values, which can originate from knowledge related to career opportunities or expertise in a certain field. AMAs with more than 10 to 20 questions from the public, usually contain questions regarding career opportunities, most often internships.

Finally, genuineness here is about holding an honest and forthright AMA. As Kent and Taylor (2002) noted, genuineness helps organizations find ways to be perceived as mutually beneficial in organization-public dialogues. It seems like a straightforward subprinciple but it can be especially challenging on Reddit. First, (pseudo)anonymity, a unique characteristic of Reddit, strengthens the importance of genuineness. Unlike what is usual on, for example, Facebook, redditors do not believe integrity comes together with identification but instead believe integrity comes with authenticity, candor, and transparency (Massanari, 2015). Secondly, the general Reddit community is known to distrust organizations, especially large ones (Massanari, 2015). Organizations may not meet redditors’ expectations for authenticity, for example, when a representative has not answered the most upvoted questions. Consequentially, their inherent distrust for large institutions can evolve into a mob mentality in which organizations are ridiculed or otherwise punished.

A good example of applying the genuineness principle is the AMA by University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). In their AMA, /r/UCLA placed comments telling redditors to go to their more authentic AMA instead:

“A representative from the UCLA Admissions office sent us a mod mail about a month ago telling us about the AMA announcement, but did not want us to get involved, only advertise. They wanted to appoint their own Student Ambassadors, who were mostly not Reddit users. [...] We have over 4,000 students and alumni subscribed, and we allow anyone to answer any questions. While these answers are not ‘official,’ they will be at least on par and most likely more useful and honest than the opinions of Student Ambassadors.”

The content analysis shows several ways that organizations can show genuineness. First, organizations should clearly practice the subprinciple unanticipated consequences, i.e., dialogues should be unrehearsed and spontaneous (Kent and Taylor, 2002). Organizations should engage in open communication. Secondly, when text is corrected or added, organizations have followed the reddiquette. They indicated changes in their writing by adding “EDIT” or “edit” at the end of a comment or post, followed by the new information, e.g., “edit: grammar.” Organizations were also transparent about who was holding the thread and, if appropriate, they should include these representatives’ political background. Most straightforwardly, organizations have indicated their honesty through their use of words, e.g., Prismatic Games wrote “honestly, yes ...” and “I won’t be able to really say ...” Finally, the conversational human voice was found to be an effective method in this analysis and previous studies (Kelleher, 2009).

Applying dialogic principles on social media can be important and can have positive outcomes for organizations. Yet, especially on Reddit, some subprinciples seem to be more important than others. Below a case study is provided to show what can go wrong and what organizations can do to prevent or respond to such crises.

AMA by Carlos Ghosn, CEO of Renault-Nissan Alliance — What Went Wrong?

On 12 January 2015, Carlos Ghosn, President and CEO of Renault, Nissan and the Nissan-Renault Alliance, hosted an AMA in /r/IAmA. This AMA quickly became one of the most controversial AMAs in the studied time span from February 2014 to February 2015. The controversy can be illustrated by the following much-upvoted comment with over 1,700 points: “is it just me or does 20 answers seem a little weak? What is the average amount of answers for AMA? There’s a lot of hard questions that he avoided. Honestly this felt more like a PR puff piece than a Ask me Anything.” Ghosn initially only answered 22 questions. In contrast, the exploratory analysis showed that organizations replied with 48 comments on average, and, more specifically, 2014 Fortune 500 and Global 500 companies wrote 69 comments on average. Additionally, perhaps by coincidence, Ghosn seemed to have mainly answered questions that would shed a positive light on the company.

Soon after the AMA ended, the rumor emerged that this was a staged AMA. This angered many redditors to the point that it made it to the front page of Reddit that day. A mob mentality emerged. Redditors left comments such as “It’s all PR. It’s no accident this AMA is happening during the Detroit Auto Show.” Another redditor found it suspicious that Ghosn mainly answered to newly-joined redditors. Some went as far as to draw the comparison to Rampart which was perceived by many redditors as the worst AMA in history (e.g., Desta, 2014; Massanari, 2015).

Yet, in that same crowd, there were also many redditors who supported Ghosn. This shows the plurality of the publics of AMAs. As the AMA became more controversial and hence more visible, several redditors even tried to fight what turns out to be false rumors. Perhaps encouraged by the cloak of (pseudo)anonymity — some played the role of devil’s advocate and collected evidence to prove that Ghosn did not set up this AMA in advance. For example, a redditor found that on the first day merely three out of 21 of Ghosn’s responses were addressed to newly-created Reddit accounts. It is not uncommon for visitors to create an account (initially) just to participate in an AMA (Massanari, 2015). The strange otherness on Reddit is thus not necessarily always a risk but sometimes an unexpected ally.

By the time Ghosn finally responded to some negative comments himself a day later, the disapproval had already worked itself into the top comments. Ghosn explained he was overwhelmed by the popularity of this thread (see Figure 4). It is also possible, he did not respond to negative comments because he was simply not aware of them, or he ignored them to not draw any more attention to them as is common on Facebook (Dekay, 2012).

 

A screenshot of a cropped comment tree in the controversial AMA by the Renault-Nissan Alliance, represented by their CEO Carlos Ghosn
 
Figure 4: A screenshot of a cropped comment tree in the controversial AMA by the Renault-Nissan Alliance, represented by their CEO Carlos Ghosn.
Note: Larger version of figure available here.

 

The initial anger among redditors is understandable. As discussed earlier, redditors hold honesty and transparency in high regard (genuineness). Redditors expect AMAs to be at least unrehearsed and spontaneous (unanticipated consequences) and not just for self-serving PR purposes (commitment to conversation). Thus, the rumor that the AMA was staged was especially damaging. More pragmatically, organizations should attempt to understand the social rules and expectations in this subreddit (commitment to interpretation), of which the most important ones seem to be spending enough time with the public (spirit of mutual equality) and responding timely (propinquity). If Ghosn’s team had done this, they may have been able to take actions in time to subdue the mob mentality. Their lack of dialogue only left rumors to spread, appear on the Reddit frontpage, and even got picked up by news outlets such as PR Week (Stein, 2015).

Integrative view on responses

In discussing organizations’ use of dialogic principles, the responses from redditors are already touched upon. The remainder of this section summarizes audience responses to answer the second research question of this study. Regarding the earlier-discussed publics’ responses to dialogic principles, it should be noted that a public response is not enticed by one but multiple principles. The analyzed questions can be divided into eight areas:

  1. the representatives’ personal lives,
  2. the representatives’ professional expertise,
  3. the organizations’ products and/or services,
  4. career opportunities for the publics,
  5. suggestions for improvement of the organization, its product and/or its services,
  6. jokes and other attempts at humor,
  7. signs of publics’ discontent, and
  8. signs of publics’ support.

In the analysis, the following patterns emerged from the responses from redditors. First, personal questions were usually only asked when an organization’s representative can be considered as a public figure. Public figures can range from highly positioned representatives of well-known organizations, such as the CEO of the Renault-Nissan Alliance and President of Taco Bell, to actual celebrities such as Trophy Scars, Jerry Seinfeld, and Sir Mix-A-Lot.

The audiences in /r/IAmA have also demanded more pragmatic value during AMAs, which relates to the principles of commitment to conversation and mutuality. The publics may ask representatives to share their professional knowledge or expertise as well as questions about working in their professional field. Additionally, questions can also concern the products and/or services, including suggestions for improvement and other ideas for new products and/or services, and inquiries about how to use them, the specifics (e.g., their quality or ingredients), and how these may change in the future. For example, many Taco Bell customers asked for the return of menu items during an AMA. In return, some redditors explicitly mentioned the organization’s answer was what enticed them to support the organization. For example, in the thread of NPO Watsi, redditors commented, “Thanks for answering! I’m glad to find out about Watsi and I made a donation,” and, “I think you’ve convinced me enough to make a donation”.

It is also important to distinguish between supportive, positive commentaries and harmful, negative commentaries. Worth noting is that comments that do not contribute to the dialogue should be downvoted according to reddiquette, and by downvoting them they get buried by more upvoted comments or get literally ‘buried’ (i.e., hidden technically by the Reddit Web site). This means that unconstructive criticism, for example, gets out of sight for all but the Web site’s administrators, and, instead, publics’ attention is drawn to comments that do contribute to the organization-public dialogues. The reddiquette and technological features of Reddit thus enable the comments that contribute to the conversation to gain in visibility and popularity.

It is interesting that our exploratory analysis shows visibility is not so much about whether a comment encourages a meaningful conversation but more so about how many redditors agree with the comment. For example, when a thread in /r/IAmA is well-received by the stakeholders like the one by Taco Bell, there is a snowball effect in popularity in the post itself as well, because a popular Reddit post can gain a better position on the Web page, which, in turn, enables it to gain more collective appraisal from redditors (Van Mieghem, 2011). The AMA by Taco Bell, in fact, made it to the front page of Reddit of that day and caught the attention of several news outlets (e.g., CTVNews.ca Staff, 2014; Esposito, 2014; Grossman, 2014).

On the flipside, comments seem to get downvoted when redditors disagree with the author or are otherwise dissatisfied by the content or author. In the AMA by the Renault-Nissan Alliance, a mob mentality arose because of the false rumor. In anger, redditors have downvoted many of Ghosn’s comments which under other circumstances would not have been downvoted so heavily. For example, his answer “If we were to start giving away our cars to everyone on the Internet who asked, we would be bankrupt” at one point had only -35 points. However, after the rumor was proven to be false with actual empirical evidence, redditors started upvoting Ghosn’s comments again and the mob mentality died down. For example, the earlier-mentioned comment on giving away cars increased by 21 points. The importance of votes is thus not to be underestimated, and scholars are advised not to only consider the textual content when analyzing Reddit but also the voting behavior.

 

++++++++++

Discussion and conclusion

Through the analysis of organizations’ use of dialogic principles (Kent and Taylor, 2002), several general tendencies were found. Most organizations redirected the audiences away from Reddit and towards their own profile pages on social media and their own Web site. Most organizations also showed confirmation of the publics’ support, and vulnerability to publics’ negative responses which came together with unanticipated consequences. Many organizations made sure to make the best of their time and answer questions as quickly as possible, preferably with a team of representatives (immediacy of presence, engagement).

However, the analysis shows many areas in which organizations can improve as well as principles that have barely been utilized. Obviously, many of the 23 analyzed threads could benefit from making more use of dialogic principles, but there was also a clear lack of use of certain principles. Only a few organizations created tangible benefits for the publics (commitment to conversation). Also, unlike NPOs, most for-profit organizations did not attempt to maintain the publics within the thread nor encouraged the publics to participate and revisit the thread (temporal flow of propinquity). Perhaps this is because organizations value the publicity, brand familiarity and other benefits that come along with the thread in /r/IAmA.

While each dialogic principle can be argued to theoretically have a positive effect on publics’ responses, the data indicates that audiences on Reddit have two important expectations. First, they hold transparency, open communication and honesty in high regard (genuineness and commitment to interpretation). Secondly, they expect /r/IAmA threads to have extrinsic and/or intrinsic value for themselves besides having value for the organization in marketing and/or PR context (commitment to conversation). Failure in meeting these expectations is likely to cause discontent and ultimately an organizational crisis, in which social media can become a vehicle to spread damaging rumors and negative publicity (Coombs, 2012).

This study contributes to the computer-mediated PR literature by analyzing both organizations’ PR strategies and public’s responses. It is innovative in applying the dialogic principles proposed by Kent and Taylor (2002) in a relatively new and less researched social media platform. In addition, this study showed the importance of comparing the uses of dialogic principles by different organizations. Also, /r/IAmA offered a unique chance of exploring Q&A-dialogues in the context of computer-mediated PR.

More importantly, the analysis of publics’ responses in this study shows that job-related comments can be found in every well-known organization’s thread in /r/IAmA. This confirms the role of fans and (former) employees needs more scholarly attention. Industrial research has indicated that fans and employees can be great advocates or opponents (Weber Shandwick, 2009). This research is in line with previous research and showed that fans and employees defended the companies against negative comments. For example, a Nissan employee defended Nissan against their fellow redditors’ critique and reinstated his or her positive image of the car brand. Organizations can harness this power by supporting their supporters (empathy) and paying more attention to them would also utilize dialogic subprinciples propinquity (to seek a lasting relationship) and commitment to conversation (i.e., dialogue offers mutual benefit).

The use of qualitative content analysis and limited sample affects the generalizability of the findings of this study. However, an effort was made to explore a wide variety of threads in terms of content characteristics and organizational features. The use of purposive sampling and the focus on dialogic principles make the findings contribute not only to current PR scholarship, but also to PR practitioners’ knowledge and to methodological applications of the dialogic frameworks of Kent and Taylor (2002). Future research could consider further analyzing the effects of the application of dialogic principles. In addition, the content analysis in this study can show communication behaviors online but cannot provide further insights into why certain comments were made or certain strategies were applied. Further research could focus on exploring the underlying reasons for those online communication patterns. End of article

 

About the authors

Phuong Hoan Le, M.A. M.Sc., is a Lecturer at the Department of Media and Communication at Erasmus University Rotterdam. She earned her M.A. in Media Studies and her M.Sc. in Business Administration.
E-mail: le [at] eshcc [dot] eur [dot] nl

Yuping Mao (Ph.D., Ohio University) is Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at California State University, Long Beach. She is the co-editor of two books: Culture, migration, and health communication in a global context (Routledge, 2017) as well as Handbook of research on citizen engagement and public participation in the era of new media (IGI Global, 2016). She has published a few book chapters, and her work has been published in peer-reviewed journals such as Communication Research, Canadian Journal of Communication, Journal of Intercultural Communication Research, Journal of Substance Use, and Advances in Public Health. She has made more than 50 research presentations in regional, national, and international academic conferences.
E-mail: Yuping [dot] Mao [at] csulb [dot] edu

 

Notes

1. Massanari, 2015, p. 9.

2. Ibid.

3. McAllister-Spooner, 2009, p. 321.

4. Hsieh and Shannon, 2005, p. 1,281.

5. Massanari, 2015, p. 9.

 

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Editorial history

Received 16 October 2017; revised 6 September 2018; accepted 11 October 2018.


Creative Commons License
This paper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Reddit as a new platform for public relations: Organizations’ use of dialogic principles and their publics’ responses in the subreddit IAmA
by Phuong Hoan Le and Yuping Mao.
First Monday, Volume 23, Number 11 - 5 November 2018
https://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/8131/7605
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v23i11.8131





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