Crisis communications and dealing with the adverse publicity from advertising and marketing activities has proven to be a huge learning curve for the Australian brewing industry.
In recent years we have seen marketing and PR issues become more prevalent for breweries as they move further into the mainstream spotlight.
Most recently, Melbourne’s Stomping Ground Brewing Co. faced a communications challenge following its ‘Pot for a Shot’ campaign on social media, when a mass of anti-vaccine campaigners, largely from abroad, flooded the post with critical comments. The campaign led to Stomping Ground rapidly deleting the post.
Stomping Ground was not the first business to undertake a campaign encouraging vaccination – US brewers have been offering discounted drinks to vaccinated people and in Australia, Qantas is offering rewards for customers who get vaccinated – but the brewery seems to have received a disproportionate level of backlash.
Steve Jeffares, co-founder of Stomping Ground, said the team were anticipating some response to the ‘Pot for a Shot’ campaign, but not to this extent.
“I certainly expected, and was prepared for, some push back and negative sentiment, but was confident this would be balanced by the positive support,” he told Brews News.
“After some initial positive comments from our followers, it became apparent that the post had been shared quickly on anti-vaccination forums around the world, which led to many people posting and commenting who had no previous awareness of, or connection to, Stomping Ground.
“The reaction was getting very aggressive and impacting our team negatively. While we have extensive media experience, we also got immediate advice from our PR consultant, who has experience with crisis management, and decided the best way to calm the situation was to cancel the promotion and take down the post.”
Jeffares said that the whole Stomping Ground team believe that the vaccination programme is a key element of “getting back to normal” and that it was something they were keen to support.
“We understand the vaccination programme is a politically charged topic in Australia and overseas. We had seen many other large and small breweries overseas do similar promotions and it was something we were also keen to support.
“It has been illuminating to see Qantas, Channel 9 and a growing number of other brands subsequently supporting and encouraging vaccinations as a promotion. They have also chosen not to respond to vitriolic posts and comments,” he said.
Despite the furore over its ‘Pot for Shot’ campaign, Jeffares said that the brewery supported vaccination programmes and other social issues and will continue to do so in future publicly.
“My advice to others would be to understand how quickly and strongly opinions can be voiced when dealing with political topics, especially on social media,” he said to brewers faced with the same challenges.
“Brands and companies are made up of people who have opinions and stances on certain issues. I think if something directly affects a company and has an impact on the industry it operates in, then you should be able to take a stance.”
Dealing with a comms crisis
Some breweries tend to shy away from politicised campaigns, whilst others delve in headfirst. But whatever the culture of your brewery, being able to deal effectively with PR fallout – positive or negative – is key to maintaining consumer confidence and brand loyalty, and asserting business values.
Dr Monique Lewis, lecturer at Queensland’s Griffith University and specialist in public relations and communications, said that choosing to take a consumerist approach to a major public health initiative in the middle of a pandemic could be considered “a little off-piste”.
“On the other hand, the company was offering its support of a major public health initiative at a time when any ‘nudging’ towards vaccination uptake is helpful,” Dr Lewis said.
“But if you’re supporting a major public health initiative in a promotion, then be mindful that’s exactly what you’re doing. And be mindful that this is happening within a wider political context,” she continued.
Unlike previous brewery marketing and social media missteps, this is not a straightforward example of crisis comms gone wrong, Dr Lewis said.
However, the discussion about vaccine rollouts has been highly politicised and polarising and thus requires greater planning and awareness of the potential outcomes.
“It should not have been a surprise to receive anti-vaccination sentiment on the company’s page, the company should have preempted this, and been ready to respond to such comments,” Lewis said.
“It seems like they simply panicked, and just shut down the promotion. Then, of course, they were criticised for giving in to active ‘anti-vaxxers’, a point that is all the more bitter now that everyone in Victoria is in lockdown.”
The main imperative when using a social, cultural or political issue within your marketing is to allow engagement of some form with that issue and be prepared for there to be both detractors and supporters.
“So many companies still use social media for promoting their products but have no intention of actually engaging with their audiences,” Dr Lewis said.
“If you’re going to have a presence on social media, you need to be willing to engage. A lot of companies like to promote their products or services on platforms like Facebook or Twitter, but they are not necessarily interested in or open to two-way communication with their audiences.
“In this day and age, you need to be prepared to engage with your audiences – not just post when it suits your own organisation’s circumstances or agenda.”
However, Dr Lewis did balance this by saying that it can be difficult to argue against a position like that of anti-vaxxers.
“I’m not sure that it’s possible for a brewing company to negotiate online conversations with people who have taken up a strongly anti-vaccination position – whether it’s just about the COVID vaccine or vaccinations more generally!
“Which takes us back to the point about being aware of your environment, and the potential consequences when you’re communicating across these platforms.”
This is another point of learning for the industry, and in addition, Lewis suggested that refusing to speak to the media is never recommended in crisis management.
“This is crisis comms 101. Especially when there is substantial interest coming from major news outlets.
“Things can just snowball, and if your organisation’s voice is not there contributing to the void, then it risks other voices filling in that void for you. And your organisation’s reputation may be a major casualty within all this.”
While this did not occur for Stomping Ground, following the subsequent announcement of the Melbourne lockdowns which dominated mainstream media outlets, for other brewers facing a similar issue it is an area of public relations to consider in detail.
The issue is of course that small businesses, a category in which the majority of Australia’s breweries fall, can be both media-shy and lack the resources to deal with the fallout.
“They are not likely to have leaders who are media trained, because training is very expensive, and they are unlikely to plan for a crisis because they are so busy with the day-to-day operations of their organisation,” Dr Lewis reasoned.
“On the run, they may not have time to give much thought to monitoring their environment before running with potentially controversial initiatives – considering all those potential ‘icebergs’ they might run into. But a key question here is this – can they afford not to?”