Thursday 10 June 2021 3:25 pm

'BrewDog's next challenge is not making matters worse', says crisis PR expert

BrewDog has suffered something of a PR disaster today after tens of former employees posted an open letter online that alleged unfavourable and damaging things about the company.  

More than 60 ex-BrewDog employees signed the open letter, which was posted to Twitter and alleged the brewery had created a culture of fear at its workplace.

The letter said staff became mentally ill because of the company, and that they were asked to do things for the business they were not comfortable with, including bypassing customs when sending beer to the US.

BrewDog was quick to offer a full apology, promising to “listen, learn and act” as a result of the letter, adding: “It’s hard to hear those comments, but it must have been harder to say them.”

It appeared BrewDog, a brewery widely seen as one with a good reputation, had suffered one of the biggest PR disasters of 2021, second only to the cataclysmic European Super League project.

Bogdan Marinescu, co-founder and managing director of online reputation management company Digital Trails, said BrewDog had worked hard to build up its reputation, in part by pitching the brand as a champion for justice.

However, today’s letter could have a damaging effect on revenue, talent recruitment and retention, community relations and even the evaluation of the business ahead of a planned IPO.

“This issue has very quickly turned into a crisis and the reputation damage that will result from it will widely depend on how quickly they deal with it and the way they tackle it,” Marinescu said.

“I would expect to see quick action based on the same values they share with their supporters: transparency, trust, accountability and honesty.

“James [Watt, BrewDog co-founder and CEO] has quickly issued a corporate statement to respond to accusations and that’s the first step in the process. The next should be making it personal – an honest video statement from him – and stating a plan of action: how will they tackle the accusations? Will they investigate, involve all parties, and keep everyone updated? Will anything good come out of it in the firm of potential culture change?

“If they can take action in this direction and convince the public they are serious and honest about it, not only the damage may be low, but their (positive) reputation can grow exponentially as a result.”

‘Brands are remarkably resilient’

But Tim Toulmin, managing director of crisis PR company Alder UK, believes if handled properly, the open letter should not cause long-term damage to the brand.

“People still booked Thomas Cook holidays after the company disgraced itself over the deaths of the Christi and Robert Shepherd; Ted Baker sales actually rose after the Ray Kelvin harassment allegations; and within 18 months of its shocking diesel scandal Volkswagen became the world’s biggest carmaker by volume. In other words, brands are remarkably resilient,” he said.

“The first challenge for BrewDog is to not make matters worse,” Toulmin continued. “This means not being defensive and not questioning the motives of those criticising the company. The aim should be to suck the oxygen out of the story by showing they listen, understand and will take action. 

“After that they need to commission some independent work aimed at understanding what the company culture is actually like. Culture is a strong driver of reputation so they will need to take action if they find any shortcomings.”

Toulmin added the brewery should review how its public campaigns reflect the company, as reputational risk is created when there is a misalignment of public and private values.

“This really is a ‘family matter’ for the company to fix and the sooner they can get it away from public discussion and back into the internal realm the better – but that means taking it seriously and giving stakeholders good reasons to trust what they are doing,” he added.

Iain Anderson, chair of marketing and comms agency Cicero praised the brewery for its speedy response to criticism, but added that it wasn’t out the woods yet.

“BrewDog has not missed a beat or created any communications vacuum and are addressing the issues head on in their rapid initial response,” he said.  

“This is a brand best known for its ethical approach and that will be the test ahead – showing tangible action to address the concerns.”