UPDATE: This story has been updated several times below, including with the offending PR agency’s public apology, after it sent out the unauthorized press release that started this whole mess.
Atlanta’s Scofflaw Brewing Co. has a reputation for being divisive.
That’s not a reputation that we’ve bestowed on them as a publication, or one they’ve gradually earned from beer consumers—it’s a reputation they’ve actively courted since the day they first began operation. It’s why they’re named “scofflaw” in the first place, aligning themselves with those Prohibition-era individuals who flouted the law by imbibing at will. This is the cool, punk aesthetic that Scofflaw has attempted to cultivate in the Atlanta beer market and beyond, and that can be a perfectly effective image for a brewery—provided you can keep your foot out of your mouth.
Unfortunately, this does not tend to be one of Scofflaw’s strengths. This is something we’ve written about in the past, when a local brewing story gained national attention and Scofflaw lashed out against its own customers for the crime of asking for consistency in its canned product. At the time, it made for a teachable moment and an example of why breweries should probably have professional PR people handling social media accounts, rather than potentially hot-tempered management. But now, Scofflaw seems to have kicked off another kerfuffle that will likely put the last one to shame, and they managed to invoke President Donald Trump in the process.
First, a little background. Back in December of 2017, Scofflaw announced a partnership with Scotland’s similarly “punk”-themed BrewDog, wherein BrewDog would take over part of Scofflaw’s canned brewing production at their U.S. headquarters near Columbus, Ohio. Since then, the two breweries have engaged in a number of cross-promotional ventures together, including collaboration beers, and Scofflaw beers being sold at BrewDog locations. Perhaps importantly, a Scofflaw representative told me in Dec. 2017 that the partnership was “a one-year agreement.”
Flash forward to September of 2018, and Scofflaw was about to embark on their biggest cross-promotional venture with BrewDog yet, by “storming the U.K.,” according to the brewery’s August press release. As it says there:
“This widely celebrated band of hooligans is entering a unique partnership between Scofflaw CEO Matt Shirah and BrewDog CEO James Watt.”
“James [Watt] and I had just completed a hell of a huge collaboration beer and we decided we could take our synergies a little farther,” Shirah reports, “so here we come…and our objective is simple…we’re coming over to showcase independent beer and redneck hospitality.”
Everything seemed normal, with Scofflaw setting up to pour beer in all of BrewDog’s system of pubs throughout the U.K. And then this craziness hit Twitter this morning.
That’s the text of an email from Scofflaw’s PR firm that was sent to at least a few U.K. area media outlets, promising free beer to drinkers … provided they are supporters of Donald Trump. Or in their actual words, the press release promised that drinkers could get “beered up redneck style, free of charge.” Yes, those are the actual, cringeworthy words that were used. The release goes on to claim that various activities and PR stunts will be performed during the U.K. visit, such as “demolishing beer can pillars in a monster truck,” and “beer can clay pigeon shooting,” while also citing one of the brewery’s catchphrases: “There’s a little dissent in everything we do.”
Online response was, suffice to say, not pretty, with many commenting upon the irony of “dissent” being used to describe “supporting the President of the U.S.A.” But then things started to get really weird when both the official BrewDog account and the account of CEO James Watt began denouncing the promotion of their own partner, saying that Scofflaw would not be pouring beers at their U.K. locations after all. They also claimed to have no knowledge of their partner’s well-publicized political leanings. They even go on to call Scofflaw … and I can scarcely believe that I’m typing this … “fake news.”
So, what the hell are we supposed to make of this whole debacle? Are Scofflaw actually pouring beer in the U.K., or are they suddenly without a venue to do so? Can anyone reasonably be supposed to believe that BrewDog didn’t know the political affiliations of their partner, after working with them in the U.S. for the last year, or could be totally unaware of the promotions that were being planned to take place in their own bars, in their own country? Of note: BrewDog has actually brewed beer critical of President Trump in the past, which certainly suggests they wouldn’t have given the O.K. to any promotion in this vein within the U.K.
Either way, Scofflaw is currently being roasted by beer geeks in both the U.S. and the U.K. on social media posts that had been promoting the U.K. invasion events, and the page for their “Scofflaw Week at BrewDog” events has been deactivated at the BrewDog website, suggesting that this partnership is certainly in a weird, rocky place at the moment.
Meanwhile, the brewery is now responding on social media by essentially throwing their UK-based PR firm under the bus, saying that “This post was done on our behalf without our consent or knowledge.” They’ve responded as such to both the U.K. journalists who originally broke the story on Twitter, and minutes ago on Facebook. As the commenter jokes, is this going to end with Scofflaw saying that they were hacked by Russians?
UPDATE: Scofflaw CEO Matt Shirah made some comments to Beer Street Journal, saying that the company hired Frank Publicity “for the week to promote his joint events in the United Kingdom,” and that this morning’s craziness is the result of the company literally going rogue, which does not seem like the best business plan at all. He goes on to say the following:
“I was unaware of any press release. The first one was the only one they were tasked to release, you saw the one. I gave them nothing else. They did this without my consent or review. Just made it up. Fiction. The PR firm, one agent, went out on their own. Maybe they don’t like Brewdog. Getting killed here. We can’t even leave the hotel room. Frank made it up and sent it. It was never a plan. never heard of it until it hit the press.”
Shirah also spoke with Georgia’s Beer Geek Radio, saying “I don’t make political statements, I make f*ing beer!”
Likewise, Frank PR put out the following statement on Friday morning, owning up to the mistake. How this happens, we have no idea—did someone at Frank write a satirical press release making fun of Scofflaw, and then accidentally release it into the world?
There will obviously be some who claim that the entire sequence of events was a single, planned “PR stunt,” but who does that really benefit, honestly? It certainly doesn’t benefit BrewDog to rile up people online who already have a bad impression of the brand. It doesn’t benefit Scofflaw to plan a bunch of events at BrewDog pubs in the U.K. and then have them all canceled. Hell, Scofflaw’s Facebook posts yesterday managed to even turn their own customers against BrewDog, in the most unlikely of results. This doesn’t seem like one of those “any publicity is good publicity” scenarios. It’s more like a “how the hell was this allowed to happen?” scenario.
UPDATE: BrewDog is now promising free beer, by way of apology.
UPDATE: Scofflaw has been posting on Facebook and elsewhere that their PR firm is refusing to apologize for the press release unless absolved of all legal responsibility for it, which suffice to say … doesn’t make a lot of sense. Scofflaw also used the opportunity to chide BrewDog, their own partner, for distancing themselves from the brand.
UPDATE: Nothing says “Scofflaw,” quite like management publicly telling a customer on Facebook, “tell me again why I should give a fk what you say?”