Many small independent breweries do not have the budget for separate PR or marketing staff, and even those that do can often be unprepared for a major crisis management incident.
As Australia engages in fast-moving discussions and education about colonial pasts and the place of different cultures and peoples within them, it can be a difficult time for brands and products with potentially contentious names or connotations, and Colonial Brewing Co. in WA was no exception.
An uproar occured this week after independent bottle shop Blackhearts & Sparrows removed Colonial’s beers from its stores following a social media complaint. While the action was limited to a small number of stores, in the current climate the brewery found itself suddenly thrown into a crisis.
But unlike other brands, such as Coopers which faced its own backlash in 2017 and was criticised for its response after it brewed a commemorative Coopers Premium Light beer with the Bible Society, Colonial has managed to deal with the fallout well, according to communications expert Anthony McClellan of AMC Media.
“Colonial have handled this issue as well as they could in light of the current situation as a result of the Black Lives Matter global movement,” McClellan said.
“Their statement “we want you all to know; we hear you” is pretty spot on in terms of tone. It says, ‘we are listening’, which is the best place for them to be at the moment.
“It also addresses both sides of this argument – those wanting a change of name and those who believe it’s a ’storm in a beer can’.”
The nature of the news cycle and public opinion could also be beneficial, said McClellan.
“If I was advising them, I would tell them they should continue with their position of listening to the community, and take their time making a decision. Time is on their side in this debate.”
But reputational risk goes two ways he said, and Blackhearts & Sparrows have now been on the receiving end of reprisals against its decision to remove the beer.
“Interestingly, [the bottle shop which] started all of this by boycotting Colonial are having a significant backlash themselves, with calls on social media for a boycott of their shops. I’m not sure they thought through the implications of their decision,” McClellan said.
In advising brewers and any small businesses when it comes to interacting with social issues, McClellan explained that being aware of these movements and how they may affect a business is key.
“Breweries, as with all companies, should be continually auditing their exposure to reputational risk,” he said.
“Part of that process is continually analysing what issues are ‘live’ in the community, political and social [spheres] and asking: Can that issue affect my brand, either negatively or in a positive manner?
“It’s also very important to have in place a template Reputation Risk Reaction Plan that can be adapted to the particular circumstances of the risk.
“That plan answers basic questions such as: Who is the spokesperson? Do we comment at all? To whom do we speak? How and how often?
“Preplanning, integrated with flexibility, is crucial to handling a reputational crisis,” he said.
Colonial’s response to backlash
Colonial’s communications and marketing manager Jenna Godley said that the focus of Colonial’s response was to stay true to its strategy and its brand.
“We know what we want to achieve as a brand and a company, and one of the most important things is to stick to what your brand is,” she said.
“We were already going through a process of reviewing our name before the current circumstance were highlighted. We have an idea of how we want to move forward and don’t want to now make a reactive decision due to public or media forces.”
Godley said that Colonial had a number of key messages in their reaction and processes.
“[It is key] when you go through these processes to stop, listen, educate, and not to be reactive,” she explained.
“We had very strong messages of the process – what we’re doing and what we believe in and that’s what we’ve told everyone and we’ve stuck to our guns on that.”
The first two ‘pillars’ on which Colonial responded were acknowledgement of the issue and education, Godley explained.
“Acknowledgement was the first pillar – that other parties had various opinions and different ideas.
“We’ve been educating ourselves a lot through our customers and the indigenous community to work through what it means for them, not just the people getting offended on their behalf.
“It is an opportunity to educate ourselves, and to talk to the public and create positive conversation. No matter what the decision it needs to be informed,” she reasoned.
After you have got through the first 48 hours of a news cycle and have responded to comments and the media in a way that maintains your values as a brand, it’s about thinking about long term and how you can contribute to the conversation in a positive way, she said.
“[It’s important to see] if there is an opportunity to create a positive message and outcome for everyone involved without pushing negative information onto people who may not have considered or thought through things before they’ve actioned.
“It is an opportunity to be at the forefront of conversations and we won’t be involved in media positionings – we’re not a sounding board for the media to use us on that.
“The last pillar was really our ongoing positioning, we still don’t put that timeline on [changing our name] because it was forced, but instead of doing it behind closed doors, we will bring people alongside us for this process.”
She said that the nature of independent brewing is that many businesses in the industry are smaller, and less equipped to handle situations in which they become high profile.
“We’re in an industry where people aren’t media trained. [At the business] it’s still just me in marketing and Lawrence as MD. We’re an Australian, family-run small business here to brew beer.
“I’d say as a brewery, stick to your messaging and stick to what you can influence.”
She said she believed it was particularly important for small businesses to think carefully about their response in a crisis situation.
“One thing people find in small companies who don’t have PR or a media person is that people react to what they think people want to hear.
“The biggest thing for us was don’t react, stick to our guns, acknowledge and listen.
“If I was to give advice to a general small brewery, I would say to control your own conversation. At no point have we and at no point will we talk about how this began or [our opinions on] any of the other brands involved. We can only control our positioning and our opinions.
“There’s a lot of learning along the way, and we will reach out to Blackhearts & Sparrows.
“If we can’t support each other and leverage positive communication we’re not doing our part within the industry.”