“Social listening is more important than ever.”

The director of communications at “the front page of the internet”, Reddit, on female leadership, techlashes, and why you shouldn’t be a candyass

As director of communications at Reddit, Anna Soellner communicates to and on behalf of 300 million active users spread across 138,000 different communities.

Recorded live at The European Communications Summit 2018 for the Role Models Podcast, Anna shares her personal journey from working in governance alongside Sheryl Sandberg and US senator Dianne Feinstein all the way up to her current position overseeing communications at “the front page of the internet”.

Is the job you have today different or the same as the job that you wanted when you were growing up?

My initial background when I was launching my career was in politics. I first worked for a United States senator, Dianne Feinstein from California, which is where I grew up, and then in Hong Kong for the pro-democracy movement. What I learned there has served me extraordinarily well at Reddit, which is effectively a network of communities that encompasses millions of people who all have different interests. I did not imagine, back in my youth, that I would be running communications for an organisation like Reddit, but I always had an interest in governance, and effectively Reddit is this incredible incubator for how humans communicate and interact with one another online. That in many ways makes it my dream job.

You told me that Dianne Feinstein had an old-school approach to female leadership. Can you describe what that means?

I say an old-school approach because she always felt like she had to prove something being a woman in the room. It was very formative for me to see someone with an extraordinary amount of discipline and how well that discipline served her. She always got the question which women generally and women leaders often get, which is “how do you balance work and family?” to which she would simply answer “discipline” and move on. You find that question happening a lot less, or men are also getting asked that question, but that's something that I think was always part of her experience. That's why she had her tight answer and she was ready to talk about substance.

If there is an old-school approach, is there a new school approach?

The new school approach is evolving, right? One of the things that has been talked about a lot in the United States is maternity and paternity leave, and something I'm very proud of is that Reddit is at the cutting edge in terms of granting mothers and fathers the same amount of leave when they have a new child. It's one of those small but very important points, because if both men and women are granted the same amount of leave and share responsibilities in their household, the burden is not only on the mother or the parent who is the primary caregiver.

Above: Anna Soellner interviewd backstage at the European Communication Summit 2018

You met other women while you were at US Treasury who also had a great influence on you.

After I worked for Senator Feinstein in the Senate, I had the good fortune of going over to the United States Treasury Department. It was an amazing time to work there because there were a number of people who would go on to really incredible careers, including Sheryl Sandberg, who's now COO of Facebook, Marne Levine, now COO of Instagram, Michelle Andrews who runs communications for the Federal Reserve, and a number of other people who have powerful roles, particularly in technology and communications. It was another formative experience, having very prominent female role models in a very male-dominated government agency.

"It was another formative experience, having very prominent female role models in a very male-dominated government agency."

What did you learn from female leaders in this male environment?

What was interesting about Sheryl Sandberg as Chief of Staff at the Treasury was that she was in her early to mid 30s at the time and yet was at the table with a number of different leaders of finance, CEOs, and so on, as a woman but as a younger woman. She is extraordinarily intelligent and so was able to do that with aplomb. So, again, by making sure she did her homework and showed up knowing what she was going to say and having a point of view and making that heard were ways in which she modelled leadership.

How would you describe the differences and similarities between advising and influencing a political leader with an executive in the tech industry?

There’s been a shift in terms of how the technology industry is thinking about communications. The tech industry is actually having a communications challenge of late – in the US, it is dubbed as a “techLash”. There's a real recognition within the industry that they need to do a much better job communicating their point of view, what they're trying to accomplish, how they're going to be receptive to various audiences and their concerns related to a whole slew of issues. A fascinating carryover from what I learned in the political sphere into technology is that, in politics, communications professionals are very close to the executive at all times. They are constantly serving an advisory role. For a long time that was not necessarily the case in technology.

"There’s been a shift in terms of how the technology industry is thinking about communications."

The other aspect is the real value add of us as communicators, namely that we’re always scanning the horizon trying to figure out what the next potential problem might be. That is a value add that was not necessarily embedded in some of the tech companies. Some of the larger ones certainly had this, but even they, as we have seen over the last year, did not really truly integrate that into decision-making, into how they organise themselves as companies. That has been a lesson learned from politics, where the communications director role is there to remind their executive of who the various players are – members of the media, community leaders, NGO leaders and so on.

What tips can you share with people who are in a similar positions to yours on navigating this highly fragmented media landscape?

Social listening is more important than ever, and by social listening, I mean across different social media platforms. If you really want to know what’s going on you have to listen to what people are talking about – if you're representing a brand or you're representing an interest, listen to how people are talking about you on Reddit, because typically the Reddit community is very ‘in the weeds’ as it were on different policy issues, especially relating to the Internet.

Reddit is an open platform, it's not like Facebook where you don't understand what other people are talking about in different parts of the ecosystem, it is searchable on Google, it's searchable on the site itself, and it's organised according to community. So you can really delve in and better understand what your customers are talking about, both positively and negatively. I would recommend communicators think carefully about their social listening strategy and how that can help inform not only their own communications roadmap but potentially the roadmap for other parts of the organisation in terms of product innovations that could address the needs of your customers.

What is it like to communicate to 300 million Reddit users?

It is as important to us as any of our external communications, because our users are there not because they need to be there but because they want to be there. That means it is our job to make sure that we're communicating appropriately to them, which means we are in constant touch with our users. Every product update we make is communicated to our users. Every quarter our CEO does a Reddit Ask Me Anything with the community and in that he is held accountable. He talks about things that we are rolling out, he talks about things we got right, things we maybe didn't get right. Then he gets feedback from the community, and, believe me, we get a lot of feedback, they feel very empowered to share their point of view. This has actually made Reddit very resilient over the years because our community feel like they have direct access to the leadership of the company and feel like their voices can be heard.

What are some of the skills that you adopted early on in your career that you use every day today?

One of the most important qualities that I had to learn very early on is making sure you understand how your executive absorbs information. Everybody has a different style. Some people are better having a conversation and working on messaging orally, some are much better digesting things on paper. Understanding how your executives ingest information is essential because it doesn't matter how great your talking points are - if you are not communicating them to who you're working with in the right way in which they process information, it won’t matter.

What are your predictions for the next two to three years when it comes to communications?

The way in which we think about communications is continuing to fracture. That's why I think it's so important to be comfortable in allowing a lot of people to represent your voice – and that may be your employee base, that may be people that you designate a spokespersons within your organisation. But I also think it's really important to think about surrogates, third parties – maybe groups that you work with, or other companies – who also are encouraged to speak about why you're differentiated in the market. That is incredibly powerful because word of mouth is still a phenomenon in a fractured media landscape. If people have a good experience, if they have a bad experience, that is something that will be conveyed. So think about not only your home team who speak on behalf of you but also think about other people in the ecosystem that could be great surrogates.

What top three skills would you recommend to a young person to master that are portable over the course of their career?

Staying curious. Don't just read what you think the people around you are reading. To be a really good communicator, you need to be able to connect dots that don't seem obvious, so be an omnivore when it comes to what you're reading. Number two is discipline. And that is message discipline, that is discipline in your personal life. You always have to be that adviser, you need to know what's happening in the broader world so staying up to date and having that discipline to keep apprised of what's going on in the landscape is essential. And number three is establishing trust with whomever you're working with so that they know that you're going to tell them real authentic feedback. The ‘special sauce’ of being a true communications partner is if they feel like they can trust you with their insecurities and that you can help them be a better individual and a better executive

What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve ever received?

Don't be a candyass. And by that I mean don't be afraid to raise the question that you don’t think anybody's asking. There's always going to be that question that's going to throw somebody in an interview or in a discussion, so don't be afraid, even if it's really uncomfortable or potentially personal, to be willing to ask those kinds of questions. And don't be afraid to voice what you think is part of a potential concern because if people already are aware of something that's going to come up they are less likely to be thrown by it.

This interview was recorded live at the 2018 European Communication Summit for Role Models, a podcast by David Noël and Isa Sonnenfeld that captures and share stories from women we look up to: www.rolemodels.co/ podcast. Read their blog at medium.com/@rolemodels.

Anna Soellner

Anna Soellner is director of communications for Reddit, the home of community and conversation online. Previously, she was VP for corporate communications at the Motion Picture Association of America where she worked on major news events like the Sony hack, gun violence in media and 1st Amendment issues. She also led communications at the Center for American Progress (CAP), the progressive think tank. Anna was among the first employees at CAP, building to an organization of over 250. Anna was as a Luce Scholar in Hong Kong and worked for Martin Lee, a leader of the pro-democracy moment there. In 2016 she co-founded a GOTV (get out the vote) effort called My Ride To Vote which funded ride-sharing to the polls for underrepresented communities. She is on the board of Internews, a NGO that develops independent media around the world and was founding member of Generation Conservation of Conservation International.

David Noël

David Noël co-founded Role Models in 2015 with Isabelle Sonnenfeld. He is also founding partner of leadership boutique consultancy firms ForChiefs and Founding Partner of Nöel & Co. Previously, David was vice president community and communications director at SoundCloud. As one of the company’s earliest employees, he held several roles in the music streaming company. As a consultant, he works with start-ups, small, and large companies in the areas of communication, culture development, leadership, management and community building.