Crisis Communications: Why Breweries Should Have a PR Agency

Last week, the Boston Globe published an article detailing the online backlash facing Boston and Canton, MA, based Trillium Brewing following reports of unfair labor practices. It all started when a former employee posted to a BeerAdvocate forum, providing an inside look at the brewery’s labor practices (including pay cuts in the face of large capital expenditures and forcing all employees to re-apply for jobs they already held), as well as insider information on the quality of Trillium’s beer. The comments went so far as to say that Trillium was knowingly violating federal alcohol regulations.

Nestro Ramos at the Globe picked up on the forum activity and found other current and past employees who commented on Trillium’s labor practices, supporting the claims made by the initial past employee.

In the days that followed the Globe’s piece, additional articles were filed by Paste Magazine, Good Beer Hunting, Boston.com, and The Drinks Business.  

Activity on the BeerAdvocate forums continued throughout the long weekend, and even continues today. Some craft beer fans are calling for boycotts. Many are saying they will never purchase Trillium beer again.

I won’t go into detail on all the labor and quality issues being thrown at Trillium right now. You can read the links above to get that information. However, to give you a sense of the optics of all this:

  • Last month Trillium opened a new, state of the art multi-level restaurant/brewery/taproom in the expensive Seaport neighborhood of Boston.

  • In September, the husband and wife Trillium owners announced the purchase of a farm in Connecticut to fulfill their long held dream of having a farm brewery.

  • Both of these purchases were in addition to a brewery and retail facility in the Boston Seaport and a large taproom and production facility in Canton, MA.

Needless to say, labor and pay issues surfacing in the direct aftermath of those announcements is not a good look.

In the face of all this criticism, there has been complete radio silence from the Trillium team since an initial statement they gave that essentially confirmed most accusations. The statement actually made things worse in the forums because it was so emotionless.

To my knowledge, Trillium does not work with a PR agency. They haven’t really needed to, since they’ve been able to ride the wave of fan word-of-mouth. They get love from the craft beer community, and that extended to the local and national beer press as well. They get coverage and attention without trying.

Unfortunately for them, that spotlight doesn’t just escalate positive news. It also applies to negative news, as we’re seeing now.

When any business reaches a certain size and has deep awareness within its industry, it’s a good idea to have a relationship with a PR agency or consultant for the sole reason of having crisis communications knowledge, should it be needed. It’s quite obvious that Trillium did not reach out to a PR professional in the aftermath of this recent news. No PR person trained in crisis communication, and that’s exactly what this is, would allow a client to go silent in this situation. That’s crisis comms 101 - complete silence means you’re allowing other people to drive narratives. And in this case, those narratives have not been good.

When a crisis hits, you can’t always count on a strong community of fans to become your voice and your defender. Trillium discovered that its fan base wasn’t as loyal as it thought. They’ve never done anything to make those fans feel loyal though. No formalized ambassador or influencer program. If you have those, you might be able to rely on fans getting you through minor issues (though I still advocate for a professional to institute a real issues response strategy). In this case, I’ve heard from top craft beer influencers that Trillium never really did anything to show appreciation to them for the awareness they drove to the brewery and its beers. When you run into a large-scale significant issue, you can’t possibly expect those people to come to your defense.

Could this all pass? Will we see the normal lines out the door at Trillium’s facilities again in a month?

It’s possible, but my gut tells me that won’t be the case. The craft beer community is very strong and unites surprisingly quickly. We’ve seen instances before where public sentiment turned negative on a brewery and they never fully recovered. There are so many breweries around now, that when one does something to anger people, those people simply move on. Good beer is all around us and very readily available. Trillium could potentially be looking at this type of situation for two reasons:

  1. Declining quality has become a big talking point of this larger crisis.

  2. Craft beer fans want to support the little guy. This whole situation has made the Trillium owners look greedy and money hungry.

Only time will tell us how this will pass, but one thing to learn from it, whatever industry you’re in, is when an issue arises, you need to very quickly bring in professionals to help. And don’t leave PR statements to lawyers. While your issue could be a legal one, it’s always a public perception one also. Lawyers sometimes don’t care about public perception, but you should. Once your issue passes, you still need to run a business and bring customers back.