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On the face of it, it would seem like a strong contender for worst PR disaster of 2018.
BrewDog found itself the target of online fury after a press announcement went out announcing an offer of free beer to British supporters of Donald Trump as part of a collaboration with US brewer Scofflaw.
The UK craft beer company is no stranger to controversy and has a reputation for ‘edgy’ marketing, but it faced a huge backlash when the press release was leaked on social media.
Many people suggested they would no longer drink its beers or visit its pubs.
But all was not what it seemed.
It subsequently turned out that the press announcement, and the offer it contained, had not been seen or approved by either BrewDog or Scofflaw.
It had been issued by an employee at the PR Agency used by the American Brewer, who had either ‘gone rogue’ or made a monumental error.
So, how did Brewdog deal with this potential crisis media management incident and is there anything we can learn from it?
Denying responsibility can be a tricky thing during a media crisis. Audiences often reject it, or at least tend to be highly sceptical.
And this was the case here with many social media users suggesting this was either a misjudged PR campaign or an example of any coverage being good publicity.
It’s a PR stunt. Brewdog have done their level best to trash their own brand recently and this was an attempt to look ‘good’ to gain favour. Both Brewdog and Scofflaw were in on it— Jon Morter (@JonMorter) September 27, 2018
People are wondering if this is yet another dodgy PR stunt by the beer company https://t.co/s8j8OlzbT2— Metro (@MetroUK) September 27, 2018
But a denial is absolutely the right approach if an organisation is sure it has no responsibility or fault and needs to correct misinformation.
BrewDog was very clear from the start that it had not approved or even seen the offending release before it had gone out.
The Scofflaw release was announced without our knowledge or consent.
We are in no way aligned with their position and we will of course be cancelling all the events and sending all of the beer back.
— BrewDog (@BrewDog) September 27, 2018
We care about beer and people. Not hate.
And it followed this up with several further denials until the social media outrage eventually subsided.
We often stress the importance of organisations acting quickly when crisis strikes and we make no excuse for highlighting it again in this particular case study.
BrewDog was particularly quick to respond and distance itself from the issue just as the online fury and backlash was beginning to grow.
It put out a tweet which stated that the release had been put out without its ‘knowledge or consent’.
It made clear that the deal with Scofflaw had been canned and vowed to send back its beer.
And the timeliness of its intervention impacted the subsequent media coverage, with the headlines focusing on the action the brand took:
BrewDog scraps deal with US beer firm over Trump offer BBC News
BrewDog cancels deal with US beer firm Scofflaw over plan to offer free drink to Trump supportersEvening Standard
Brewdog and Scofflaw fall out over promise of free beer to Trump supporters The Times
They are not great headlines admittedly, but they could have been much worse.
Contrast this with the way Scofflaw’s PR Agency Frank dealt with the issue. It remained silent for the best part of a day with many newspapers running the line that it was ‘unavailable for comment’.
Around 24 hours later it did take to Twitter confirming the offending statement had been issued by an ‘individual employee’ without its or Scofflaw’s approval. That employee, we learnt, was subsequently suspended while an investigation takes place.
1/2 - On 27th Sept, a statement was released to media by an individual employee of Frank without Scofflaw’s approval. The reputation of our client is of utmost importance and we are taking this matter seriously. The employee has been suspended while an investigation takes place.— Frank. (@WelcomeToFrank) September 28, 2018
2/2 - We apologise to Scofflaw, BrewDog and anyone that may have been offended by these actions.— Frank. (@WelcomeToFrank) September 28, 2018
Leading from the front
As well as the tweets from the corporate BrewDog account, James Watt, its co-founder, was also active on social media.
Mr Watt issued a series of tweets stating to his 48,000 followers that his company had ‘no idea’ about the press release or the plans and went on to describe it, in Trump type language, as ‘fake news’.
The boss doesn’t always need to lead an organisation’s response when it finds itself in the media and social media firing line.
But using personal social media accounts can be a subtle way of showing you are on top of an issue and are actively involved in trying to resolve it.
Additionally, Mr Watt answered questions from those who have financially contributed to the company – known as ‘Equity punks’ – with a dedicated thread on its forum.
There is a growing crisis communications trend of brands offering some form of sacrifice to apologise or show a commitment to change.
You may recall that when Starbucks found itself at the centre of a crisis earlier this year, it responded by announcing plans to close 8,000 stores for part of a day for employees to attend ‘racial bias education’ – a move that would reportedly cost the chain around $16.7 million.
BrewDog’s own offering - offering free beer for anyone who supports ‘love not hate’ - will have had a much lower financial cost, but made a virtue out of a challenging situation. (How do I do this? I’m all up for free beer. Ed).
We care about people and beer - not hate.— BrewDog (@BrewDog) September 27, 2018
If you do too, we have a beer for you.
Tell the crew in any UK BrewDog Bar, Berlin Mitte or BrewDog Brussels that you support love, not hate, and they will pour you a free Headliner pint. Today until close.https://t.co/AkF9g6tJJk pic.twitter.com/TOoy20Rvvc
BrewDog was not only able to state that the Trump promotion was against its values, it was also able to show it.
A blog post on the brewing company’s website highlighted some of its previous activities, including producing a protest beer called Make Earth Great Again after, to use its words ‘The Donald’ pulled out of the Paris Accord, and unveiling a temporary bar on the US-Mexico border with the words ‘make beers not walls’.
It said: “Collaboration and inclusivity are at the heart of what we do – which we felt (and still do) stands in direct contrast with the views of the Trump administration’s plans to build a wall. That’s why we’d never offer a discount to those supporting Trump.”
If you are in the middle of a social media storm it can be tempting to try to reply to everyone who either raises a concern or posts in anger.
The risk with this approach is that the replies can seem quite robotic, with a heavy reliance on copy and paste, and there was more than a hint of that in the BrewDog responses.
Does a ctrl + c ctrl + v response really show customers you care?
Hi Daniela, that press release was issued without our knowledge or consent and as soon as we discovered it we cancelled all events and will be returning the beer.— BrewDog (@BrewDog) September 28, 2018
Hi there, that press release was issued without or knowledge or consent. As soon as we discovered it we cancelled all events with Scofflaw and will be returning the beer to them— BrewDog (@BrewDog) September 28, 2018
Hi Hannah, that release was issued by Scofflaw's PR team without our knowledge or consent. Once we were made aware, we cancelled all events and returned their beer.— BrewDog (@BrewDog) September 27, 2018
The other danger is that those who slip through the net and don’t get any form of response might take offence. This happened here with one of its ‘Equity Punks’ and when he voiced his displeasure, the company’s tweeter blamed it on working a 14 hour day.
Disappointed but sadly not surprised that @brewdog decided that concerns and questions of an EFP shareholder about yesterday’s fiasco weren’t worth answering, either publicly or via DM. Not alone either - notable that folk identifying as EFP investors had their tweets ignored.— Iain Hepburn (@iainmhepburn) September 28, 2018
Apologies Iain, I worked a fourteen hour shift yesterday replying to everyone involved - if I missed your tweet it was not intentional.— BrewDog (@BrewDog) September 28, 2018
The overall picture, however, is of a brand which knows its audience and understands what channels they use.
If anything, you sense it emerged from the online fury with more people having a wider understanding of its values.
There was also throughout, a slight edge to its messages which fits well with its identity and reminded me slightly of the way KFC managed its chicken shortage fiasco earlier in the year.
Having worked in comms for many years and having first-hand knowledge of the exhausting sign-off process there can often be for comms and PR initiatives, particularly if they involve multiple partners, it is hard to understand quite how this press release was ever issued.
But, having been thrust in to a reputational crisis by someone else’s actions, BrewDog handled the situation with good skill and judgement.
I only wish I had known about the free beer apology at the time (Damn. Me too. Ed).
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