16 April 2024
Some of the brewdog range of beers

BrewDog cannot shake off the bad press – The Private Investigator story

The History

In recent times the beer brand BrewDog has struggled to deal with negative headlines. From accusations of the mistreatment of staff in a BBC documentary, an open letter from ex staff about a culture of fear and having a legal case against PR agency Frank thrown out over a Donal Trump campaign (and this is just three issues from recent years), the brand has had it tough.

The New Story

The Guardian has now ran a story outlining that BrewDog, or one of its founders, hired a private investigation company to look into some of the key people throwing shade at the brand. Friends of one of the former employees who spoke about his time at BrewDog on the BBC Documentary said that they had been visited by the private investigation company, Integritas Investigative Solutions.

The PI’s asked about the character of their friend (the former employee) and were told that the investigators were helping BrewDog’s legal company to “build a case”.

The Company’s Response

This was the quote given by a BrewDog comms person (via The Guardian)

“James Watt has been subjected to a two-year criminal campaign of online harassment, defamation, fraud, blackmail and malicious communications, instigated by a very small group of individuals. Investigators were hired to find the source of these false allegations, to seek to bring this to an end.

“As a result of those investigations, our lawyers are pursuing a private criminal prosecution for fraud and malicious communications in a court in London, there are related civil proceedings under way in Scotland and other matters have been reported to the police. These proceedings also relate to individuals directly involved in the leadership of the Punks With Purpose movement.

“We will no longer allow blatant lies to be told about our business or our people. Where those lies are told, we are duty bound to set the record straight and will expect retractions where required. We hope that by taking this action now, we can bring this deeply distressing campaign to an end.”

The Issue

Whilst the statement given is clear, concise and makes perfect sense, it could be seen as being tone deaf to the general, current ill-feeling towards the brand. Hiring private investigators always carries with it (in the public’s mind) a feeling of heavy-handedness, but then again, so did taking legal action against the PR Agency responsible for the Donal Trump story mentioned above.

It looks like the brewer is struggling to shake off its general “bad employer” tag and the threats of legal action and use of private investigator’s also challenges its own positioning as a challenger and punk brand. There is no easy or fast solution to this kind of issue but it is clear that BrewDog needs, in IT terms, a hard reboot to reset its image and get back on track.

What Could Be Done

The negativity has been going on for over a year and if I was advising from a Crisis Communications point of view I would go down the usual Crisis Comms 101 Playbook:

  • Acknowledge there is a problem (they have said they will learn from their mistake so far and have apologised to former staff who wrote the open letter but this addresses only a small part of the issue)
  • Announce an external investigation into the various accusations (no sign of this)
  • Announce the results of the investigation
  • Announce C-Suite consequences (someone losing their role)
  • Announcing what will be set in place to fix the issues
  • Build on this and PR the successes

An alternative, and faster fix in the short term would be for the company to announce that James Watt, the founder and about whom many of the media issues have stemmed from, is taking a short absence of leave to privately take on those who he believes are coming at him.

This would allow the brand to distance themselves from him personally taking steps such as hiring PI’s, and allow them to rebuild, as well as also leaving themselves with the opportunity to bring him back into the fold later down the line.

An interesting one to watch and it will be a strong case study for Crisis Communications PR students for years to come.

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