In today’s immediate digital communications environment, companies have very little time to react to a sudden PR crisis before public opinion steps in. A single tweet or post can trend and damage a carefully cultivated reputation in hours, or a news story can find a new audience on Facebook or YouTube that is vastly different from its typical readership.
So, what can be done to protect against the power of the internet, and what can be learned from recent crises that have hit big brands? Well, the good news is there are ways to protect the narrative through being reactive, succinct and powerful in a crisis. I’m going to take as an example the recent BrewDog PR crisis and what key lessons can be learned.
BrewDog, beer and ‘behaving badly‘
BrewDog is never out of the news. The Scottish multinational brewery company has risen to prominence since its foundation in 2007 and has been renowned for pushing the limits of marketing to increase brand reputation – from stunts such as throwing taxidermy ‘fat cats’ out of helicopters, to a staff member writing expletives on the bottom of cans and being awarded employee of the month. Co-founder James Watt even wrote a book about his thoughts on marketing and PR, which includes polarizing statements such as ‘Be selfish and ignore advice’, ‘Don’t start a business, start a crusade’ and ‘Networking is for fools’.
The company was seen as a dynamic disrupter to the sterile and “uncool” beer market and has been embraced by thousands as the pint of choice. BrewDog has never shied away from controversy. Spats with regulators, risqué advertising and even accusations of transphobia were just a few key moments that marked its rapid growth in 2010. Yet, at precisely 09:29 PM (GMT) in June 2021, the brewer faced a reality check on Twitter as an open letter was published attacking the company that bred a ‘culture of fear’ through the ‘harassing, assaulting, belittling, insulting or gaslighting’ of staff. The claim signed by 145 former and current staff. The company reacted – James Watt apologized and vowed to ‘listen, learn and act’ from the complaint.
But just as the company thought the PR storm had ended, the BBC aired its documentary ‘The Truth About BrewDog’ in mid-January, which not only re-examined previous allegations but also claimed that the company flouted U.S. Federal law by misleading Treasury officials and James Watt himself was accused of inappropriate behavior toward female staff – claims he denies.
At the beginning of January, BrewDog was reportedly planning to list its shares in London in a blockbuster IPO valued at more than £2 billion, making it one of the most eagerly anticipated IPOs in recent times. The company has already appointed law firm Freshfields to help prepare for the IPO.
So, what key lessons can be learnt from the BrewDog journey, from start to possible IPO?
The three A’s: Crisis Management 101
Multiple allegations from different sources that make national coverage over a sustained period is perhaps a worst-case scenario in any PR crisis. ‘Shock horror’ of this nature – or multiple in BrewDog’s case – is a rarity in trade and tech publications as most companies are not the same household names that national newspapers or broadcasters could expose to sell stories or increase viewership. However, at IBA we believe you can never say never – and have handpicked some clear strategies from our Disaster Limitation Rule Book to mitigate the PR fallout.
The first thing to remember when facing a crisis is the three A’s: assume the worst, act fast, act from the top. So, let’s break those down:
1. Assume the worst
So, when an accusation or negative story first appears, businesses are most likely unaware of the key facts, so assume the story is true and quickly work to discover the truth before making a judgement on the story’s validity.
2. Act fast
Word spreads fast in the age of the internet, so it is vital to quickly publish a counter narrative from the company – this can come in two forms: if there is evidence the information is false, publish an instant rebuttal, and if the press is damaging, look to file a retraction from a lawyer or a PR professional without damaging the media relationship with the publication. If the story is true, it is important to take full responsibility, apologize to any victims and announce an action plan to make sure the issue does not reoccur.
3. Act from the top
It is important that the issue is publicly handled by the ultimate decision maker – the founder or CEO – as it shows a degree of empathy and understanding around the issue and demonstrates corporate responsibility.
Don’t ignore the signals to avoid your brand becoming a red flag
Then remember the importance of signals. Actions can speak louder than words. Go somewhere else, get media attention on other pages. In BrewDog’s case, not news, not HR. Create your narrative around solutions and success. This continual pattern of regular communication during a difficult time is a signal – not of a business in crisis – but of a company that is successful and still in a position of brand leadership. It further demonstrates the commitment to customers. This is vital in the B2B world where the right decision can be the difference between success and failure.
During disaster limitation, it is imperative to not hide from the company’s message as negative press spreads. Silence is never golden! If media interviews or journalist outreach is ignored, or social media channels neglected, this can give the impression of guilt, so companies must react quickly and not create a PR void that can be misconstrued.
BrewDog vs. public opinion – what lessons can be learned?
All companies should have a functional and integrated disaster limitation PR strategy, in case the worst happens. This won’t just allow your business to breed confidence in customers and maintain relations with the press – but further allows for a quick recovery and a minimal loss of face. BrewDog’s example shows us that it is equally important for companies to get this strategy right the first time. If a crisis is not fully resolved and left to dissipate, this can be brought up and reignited down the line to further impact brand reputation.
Outside of crises it is vital to keep communication messaging consistent to gain the very most from B2B PR – and this is a core principle we practice and preach for our clients at IBA. So why not reach out to our team of B2B marketing experts and find out how we can keep your messaging consistent and signalling on point!
Joshua Ashworth is PR Executive at IBA International.