Revolutionary Measures

Brewdog, PR and smelling a rat

As the Oscar Wilde quote goes, “There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”

Plenty of brands and celebrities have adopted this mantra when it comes to communications, reasoning that people will remember their name, even when the story is forgotten. Bookmaker Paddy Power is one that comes to mind, with stunts ranging from sending a Mexican Mariachi band to welcome Donald Trump to Scotland to setting up an amnesty box for medals outside the Russian Embassy in London at the time of the state-sponsored doping revelations.

Brewdog is another brand that aims to cultivate an edgy image to great success. It has positioned the brewer at the front of the craft beer movement and attracted legions of fans. So last week’s PR debacle around its partnership with US brewer Scofflaw should be viewed through the lens of Oscar Wilde’s words.

photo of glass overflowing with beer

Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

The basic facts are that Brewdog has a partnership with Scofflaw, contract brewing its beers in the UK. To promote this it was running a series of events in its pubs. So far, so straightforward. Journalists then received an emailed press release from Scofflaw’s PR agency Frank, announcing the events and offering free beer to those that went along. But, it added: “But there is a hook…you have to be a Trump supporter.”

Cue Twitter meltdown and fast action from Brewdog, cancelling the events, promising to send the beer back and launching an alternative free beer promotion. Given its noted anti-Trump stance that wasn’t surprising, but gained it plenty of coverage (more than a free beer event would have done). The plot then thickens – Scofflaw denied signing off the press release, blaming Frank, who in turn apologised and blamed a ‘rogue element’ in its team. A staff member has been suspended, allegedly for sending out an unapproved release.

When I first read the story I’d assumed that the offending communication had gone out on social media, and was just a throw away line by someone that wasn’t thinking, and automatically conflated Scofflaw’s redneck roots with Trump support. But to find out that it was a press release, from a big agency such as Frank which must have clear processes in place to manage approvals makes me suspicious. In my mind that leaves three potential causes of the shenanigans:

  1. Frank doesn’t have any control over what its staff is doing. This seems unlikely given it has been operating since 2000, and has large corporate clients from Investec to Ribena (and, interestingly, Paddy Power).
  2. Scofflaw signed the release off and then retracted when it realised the issue it had created. Again, this seems unlikely as it has a close partnership with Brewdog and must have known the company’s views on Trump. It would also be an issue logistically – given it is in Atlanta the storm broke in the middle of the night US time, ensuring it was out of the loop to immediately respond.
  3. It was a stunt that benefits both Brewdog and Scofflaw. They get to show their liberal credentials and receive significantly more interest and publicity than they would otherwise do. The only company that seems to lose out is Frank (and the unfortunate staff member), as it gets a reputation as unprofessional. Though if that was the case I’m sure it will have had a quiet word with clients to calm any concerns and can chalk up the whole project as a success.

Time will tell whether this was a cock-up or a concocted PR stunt. What it does show for all agencies is the basic importance of having an audit trail around sign-off of materials. We’ve all been in the position where a client tells us over the phone “I’m sure that release/case study/campaign creative is fine, just send it out.” As the Scofflaw case shows, you need to get approval in writing – even if it scrawled on the back of a beer mat.

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October 3, 2018 - Posted by | Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , ,

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