An interesting public relations debacle was brewing at Yuengling, a Pennsylvania-based beer bottler, and the company scored a C+ for its efforts to defuse the situation. The problems started when a man named Brad Walsh was assaulted in Manhattan by another man driving a Yuengling delivery truck. The truck driver spewed homophobic epithets at Walsh and then punched him in the face. This happened in broad daylight in front of witnesses. Walsh called the police and filed a report, complete with the truck’s license plate number. Walsh then did what any other person would do: He called Yuengling. And that’s when the public relations disaster began to build momentum.
Walsh spoke to Yuengling’s Vice President of Human Resources, who immediately apologized for the incident and expressed her dismay and best wishes to Walsh. She, however, passed the buck to the distribution company whose employee and truck were involved.
Walsh understood that the man who assaulted him wasn’t a Yuengling employee, but as he said, “The simplicity of the situation is that dozens of people saw an angry man hop out of a truck with a giant ‘Yuengling’ written on the side, punch a pedestrian, and then get back in the truck and drive away. I’m sure I’m not the only person who assumed he was a direct employee of Yuengling.”
After pressing the matter, Walsh was informed by Yuengling that the company couldn’t provide him with any additional information. Enter the blogosphere. Readers posted comments on Walsh’s blog, offering up contact information for the distributor. Whether it was Walsh’s own doing or Yuengling pressuring its partner, he finally heard back from the distributor, which said it had fired the driver. Walsh thanked the distributor for its actions and Yuengling for its help, however difficult the process.
It would be easy to say that Yuengling really had nothing to do with this since the truck was not its own. But as Walsh pointed out, you better believe that people who witnessed the incident didn’t automatically think the truck was owned and operated by an independent distributor. In addition, Walsh put pressure on the company by blogging about the incident, which became much talked-about on New York City blogs and within the gay, lesbian, and transsexual communities. With the pressure building, Yuengling’s public relations department should have known that it had to take quick and decisive action.
What Yuengling should have been more proactive once Walsh contacted the company. Yuengling should have immediately investigated the incident with its distributor and asked for a prompt resolution while keeping Walsh informed of the situation. In the process, the company should have asked Walsh not to comment publicly on the situation so that nothing would interfere with the process of determining what happened. Based on Walsh’s attitude, it’s likely he would not have blogged about the subject until the issue was resolved.
One of the ways this situation could have been handled better was if the public relations department at Yuengling had gotten involved earlier. I assume they weren’t because they would have told the HR person not to email Walsh — i.e., no paper trail — and to handle the problem more swiftly. They also would have told the HR person to give up the distributor’s information immediately. (Yuengling has one distributor for the entire NYC area, so the company knew whose truck was involved.)
It’s just another example of why PR departments need to work in conjunction with HR, customer service, sales, marketing, tech support, and virtually anybody within a company who has contact with the public.
This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel), a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (http://www.ereleases.com), the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit: http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel/subscribe/.