Brewery Brews Bad Crisis Comeback

Thom Weidlich 01.28.21

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One of the great themes in crisis communications is the need to get the response right from the beginning; it’s not ideal to have to issue follow-up messages to clarify or correct. This week brings another example, yet it remains a mystery as to why the company fell short in its initial statement.

Over the weekend, a former employee of Boulevard Brewing Company in Kansas City, Missouri, said in an anonymous Reddit post that she had left the company last March due to harassment she had received because she was pregnant. She complained to human resources to no avail, she said.

She also alleged sexual harassment of other women and hiring discrimination at the beer maker. “I think it is important for everyone to know Boulevard is not a good place for women to work,” she wrote. “It is not a ‘family’ company.”

The Reddit post presented a crisis, and the company responded on Monday. In its statement, it said it takes the charges “very seriously,” but that it had investigated them a year ago and found no harassment or bias, though “certain situations could and should have been handled with greater sensitivity.”

It said it tries to treat everyone with dignity and respect. “We will use this situation as an opportunity to learn and to grow,” it wrote. More proactively, it was appointing a task force headed by female employees to re-examine the allegations.

The statement was met with some derision. Facebook commenters called it “tone-deaf” and “pitiful PR spin.” Yet to our ears, it was pretty good. It seemed sincere and promised action (it contained no apology to the woman, but the company obviously felt she wasn’t owed one).

Second Statement

The problem was with what came next. On Tuesday, Boulevard Brewing posted a second statement, headlined “Reflecting.” It’s first line is “We are sorry.” The company’s conversations with various people since the initial statement had awakened it. “We have heard accounts of personal experiences that have shaken us to our core,” it wrote. “It has become undeniably clear that harassment did in fact occur, clear that we have issues — serious issues that we have failed to address.”

Most dramatically, it said it had fired an unnamed executive and would hire a firm to investigate further. It was also increasing its bias training and creating a system for employees to report problems anonymously. “This is the beginning of a long but necessary journey, a journey that has begun too late,” it wrote.

It has since come out that Boulevard Brewing’s president and a third executive have left.

The change in tone between the two statements was startling, and yet they were issued only a day apart. This raises questions. Why was the company so confident in its earlier investigation? What was its process for deciding how to respond? Did it have a crisis plan? How is it that it suddenly found people, including current and former employees, who opened its eyes? Why didn’t it know about the problems earlier?

The communications lesson is that the brewer shouldn’t have put out a “nothing to see here” statement on Monday only to get an earful that demanded a follow-up on Tuesday. It would have been better to release a more limited comment announcing that it was investigating further. And to then disclose its very disappointing findings and issue its mea culpa.

Image Credit: Boulevard Brewing Company

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