This week Charlie takes a look at BrewDog’s crisis communications, including how well they handled accusations against them and how your company can use the lessons learnt.
I am partial to a Punk IPA and some of the company’s rather gooseberry tasting beers. So I thought now that the incident is out of the news, I would write about BrewDog’s crisis communications after an open letter from existing and former employees “Punks With Purpose” alleging a toxic culture for employees within the company was published in the media.
Organisations must be self-reflective
When I teach crisis communication, I always think organisations should reflect on themselves and understand how others see them. If you can understand how others see you, then when a crisis or controversy comes along you can review how it will affect your brand and the perception of your organisation. Once this calculation has been made, then you can choose the appropriate strategy for response.
BrewDog has always been an organisation that courts publicity, in the Punks With Purpose letter they say “the fuel you have used is controversy”. They help crowdfunds, which they claim has broken world records and conduct stunts to gain publicity for their beers and brand. This has included brewing the world’s strongest beer to driving a tank through the streets of London. When you court the public in this way some will applaud it, while others will think it’s crass and in bad taste. As a business they have been phenomenally successful with their beers selling worldwide, bars worldwide and recently setting up BrewDog hotels. They have managed to disrupt the beer business and are riding a wave of success off craft ales. There are people out there that will resent successful people and organisations and would like to see you cut down to size. Two ex-trawlermen run the business and it is common for people to stereotype. As trawlermen/tradeswomen are often thought to live and work in a rough, dangerous and unforgiving environment, it may be expected that they would have a different way of working and attitude to their staff compared to those of different backgrounds. I suspect the background of BrewDog leads to many people having a strong opinion towards the company. Therefore, when they are seen to have done something wrong, it will be a lot more newsworthy and promote a more robust reaction in comparison to a more ‘vanilla’ company or brand that may be successful.
The danger in clash of values
A clash of values between what an organisation says, its brand image, and what it does can be very damaging to its reputation. Oxfam is an excellent example of this, they hold themselves up as a virtuous company doing good worldwide. Whilst at the same time their staff are caught selling food and giving special treatment to people they are meant to be helping in return for sex. BrewDog, in the same way, is vulnerable in this case. The snippet below sums up an early issue. The company raises much of its crowdfunding but at the same time takes private equity money (see Figure 1), which many saw as going against their values. BrewDog is promoting its ‘now carbon negative’ campaign. Along with being kind to the environment, you expect organisations that promote their green credentials to be ethical and kind to their staff. So, an incident where they are accused by over 300 of their former and existing staff of a having toxic work culture will tarnish their brand image and make people question their values.
The BrewDog response
My personal opinion is that when managing this incident, it was not a crisis for them, they did a pretty good job and are an example of a good apology. When BrewDog were challenged and accused of having a toxic work culture, one of the organisation’s responses could have been to go into denial and use the existing staff members for a rebuttal of the accusation. The issue with this response is that it further feeds the media story, then the organisation and the accusers get into a media battle of examples of bad behaviours. Although you may feel that the accusations are unfounded or exaggerated, no organisation has ever treated their staff 100% brilliantly. There is always an example of poor behaviour that can be argued about in the press.
Killing the story
James Watt, CEO and co-founder of BrewDog said in a BBC interview, “we have always held our hands up when we have made a mistake and it is clear we have made a mistake”. This was the best strategy they could take, admit full responsibility, say what they will do, make amends, not feed further to the media fire, and let the story have nowhere else to go.
In admitting responsibility BrewDog followed the 4Rs of apologies:
1. Responsibility – Where the person takes complete responsibility for the offence or misdeed. James Watt in his statement on Twitter (see figure 2) and in his BBC interview took responsibility for the culture within the company.
2. Remorse – Where they actually say sorry. In the LinkedIn article, they specifically used the word sorry.
3. Restitution – Where they identify the steps they’ll take to reverse the damage. There were a number of actions going to be taken from the company. These were taken from an internal memo and shared on social media. They included anonymous staff surveys, a structure review, a review of the feedback from the Times Top 100 Review, conducting exit interviews and setting up an employee representative group.
4. Repetition – Where they will stress that they will not repeat the offence. In the LinkedIn response they say they will make the changes needed to address the issues identified in an open letter.
I think it was also great that the apology came from the owners rather than the corporate press team in a statement. They were named in the original letter and I believe it was the right call for them. There is no mention of this issue on the company website, so I suspect that this was done purposely so as not to draw attention to it over the long term and avoid it being picked up by search engines.
This story seems to have blown over and has been replaced by new COVID stories and the Euros. The ball is very much in BrewDog’s court as to whether they will follow through with their reforms and agreed actions or whether the alleged culture will continue. I did see some Facebook comments, such as those in Figure 3, but I don’t think that there will be many people who never use a BrewDog product again. I suspect this incident will be seen as a bump in the road to the company’s continued success.
Publicity seeking companies like BrewDog that have a negative story against them will always get much greater media interest than a company that doesn’t seek publicity. However, it has to be noted that when organisations behave contrary to their culture and brand values the stories will get amplified. Organisations must understand this when they craft their media response. It is also important not to feed the story further and if you are going to apologise do it properly otherwise the story gets further legs and the narrative becomes about how they mistreat their staff and are so uncaring they cannot even apologise properly.