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Navigating a Brewery or Winery PR Scandal

5 tips for crisis communication

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The alcoholic beverage industry walks a fine line when it comes to publicity. While alcohol is mainstream in American culture, it is frequently the subject of controversy, for a variety of health and social reasons. And businesses should be mindful of these implications when communicating with the public. 

Like all businesses, craft breweries, wineries, and cideries rely heavily on developing and maintaining good relationships with customers and the community. Sometimes, an unexpected public relations crisis can occur that can put your reputation in jeopardy, be it the result of an oversight, bad choices, or full-fledged misconduct. 

PR is an important part of running a business and a skill you need to cultivate when a crisis comes along. Here are five tips for weathering a PR storm as a beverage producer. 

Understand It Can Happen to You (And That’s Okay)

Big businesses and celebrities often make the most headlines when they have a faux pas, and even a small or mid-sized producer can find themselves in hot water. In fact, there have been many recent instances of producers being embroiled in scandal for serious allegations, such as sexual harassment and offensive marketing. Occasionally, a controversy can swirl around the product itself, such as misleading labels or a product recall. 

Though some scandals lead to criminal charges or lawsuits, a significant portion of scandals are just embarrassing, and they are often forgotten about in the grand scheme of things. The reality is we’re all human and we make mistakes. What’s important is that we learn from our mistakes and course correct. No one likes to be publicly embarrassed, but a crisis response is a chance to redeem yourself, show some humility and rebuild your brand. 

So, if you do find yourself in a scandal, don’t panic. Consider this an opportunity to own up to your mistakes and grow as a professional. Generally, the public and the media will grant you a chance to respond, so work to make the most of it. 

Always Read the Room

PR is all about context. History, current events, and personal experience all have an impact on how we see others. It’s crucial for a business to understand the much larger picture, especially when it finds itself in hot water. Good intentions aren’t always enough, since perception is reality.

For example, in the alcoholic beverage industry, there’s a context to understand. Truth be told, alcohol consumption in America is tolerated just as much as it’s celebrated. Addiction, impaired judgment, and underage drinking are real problems. Producers should be aware of these issues, take them seriously and avoid making light of them. Remember to tweet responsibly

A few years ago, Anheuser-Busch came under scrutiny for one of its Bud Light marketing campaigns. In the “Up for Whatever” campaign, the brewery labeled bottles with a message that said the beer was perfect for “removing ‘No’ from your vocabulary.” This sparked a public outcry because the line appeared dismissive of consent and sexual misconduct. The company apologized and discontinued the packaging. 

A good practice to avoid insensitivity is to gather outside input. For instance, imagine you have a catchy new name for a product. Go ahead and run it by peers. This can be a helpful strategy because every person comes with their own unique experience. Even an informal focus group can provide valuable feedback when it comes to gauging moral and cultural acceptance.

Have a Designated Spokesperson

If you do find yourself in a situation where you need to respond to a crisis or controversy, the message is important and so is the messenger. You want to present your business as a professional operation, and organization is part of that effort. 

Reporters are trained to be investigative, and in the course of doing their job, they will talk to anyone they can to get to the bottom of a story. Sometimes, they speak with sources who don’t have a full grasp of the situation, which can be misleading and confusing for everyone involved. 

In the midst of a crisis, you want to be sure your message remains on-brand and accurate. To that end, assign a designated spokesperson for your company, whether it’s the head of marketing, an outside firm, or even the business owner. Choose someone who can think on their feet. That way, your business will have a central point of contact and a greater control of its crisis response. 

The best practice is to define this process and communicate it to staff ahead of time before a crisis occurs. Your staff needs to know not to speak on behalf of the business without express permission. Once your employees are in the habit of directing all media requests to your spokesperson, you’re less likely to be caught off guard. 

Gather the Facts and Tell the Truth

When a business learns of a scandal, it’s often a surprise. While it can be tempting to respond right away, take a deep breath and make sure you have all the facts before issuing a response. Begin by acknowledging the matter at hand.   

If you need time to gather information, say so. It may sound cliché, but it’s the truth. At least if a reader or viewer never hears from you again, they know you’re looking into the situation. Taking time for a proper investigation is usually the best course of action if some sort of personal or criminal liability is at stake. 

You don’t have to go it alone either. Often, it can be helpful to call in an external resource, such as a public relations firm, consultant, or even an attorney. These individuals are crisis-tested and can provide situational awareness with expertise on how to move forward and, more importantly, how to prevent a crisis from escalating. 

Above all, understand that telling the truth is the best practice. Lying and covering up information makes a person or business look twice as bad when the truth comes out — and it almost always does.

Take Immediate Action 

Once you fully understand what happened, then it’s time to let the public know. You owe it to your customers, after all. Prepare a response, and release a statement or schedule a press conference, if necessary. A quick note on social media can often suffice if the issue is minor. 

If wrongdoing did take place, go ahead and apologize, but do it the right way. Be clear about how you’re sorry. Admit what you or the business did wrong. And outline the specific steps you’re taking to prevent it from happening again. 

Internally, you need to address any points of failure within your business, so employees understand that while a crisis may have occurred, it does not reflect the culture of your team and your business will not stand for that behavior in the future. This step is essential because internal credibility will ultimately shape how your team responds.

Though not everyone will accept an apology, some will and others will follow suit if you actually follow through on your apology. Going forward, incorporate the lessons you learn in your employee handbook and keep your team updated. Continuous improvement is always the goal. 

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