How a PR pro spun the Anchor story
This *definitely* wasn’t Sapporo USA’s fault, no siree!
Editor’s note: I had originally planned to take today off for my birthday, but obviously Sapporo USA had other plans this week. Please check out my column at VinePair for workers’ perspectives on how the company ran Anchor Brewing Co. into the ground. Below is a little inside-baseball from my perspective on how the company’s outside PR operative planted a favorable narrative about the closure in some of the biggest publications in the country.
No Weekender Sunday—I’m ringing in my mid-30s work-free, and I’m (actually) taking Monday off. I’ll be back in your inboxes next week!—Dave.
Today we’re going to talk about The Mainstream Media sausage gets made. Specifically, how establishment news outlets like the San Francisco Chronicle, the New York Times, NBC News, and the BBC swallowed talking points about Anchor Brewing Company’s imminent closure from Sapporo USA’s crisis-PR heavyweight, then laundered them into the public record without bothering to check in with any actual workers about it. I’ll warn you in advance, this newsletter is going to be a bit self-serving, because it makes the case for independent, labor-focused journalism about the beverage-alcohol business, and that’s what Fingers does. But it’s juicy and fun and important, and I promise to keep the preening to a minimum. Onward!
Last month, I broke the news that Anchor was pulling back from national distribution and discontinuing its beloved Christmas seasonal, Our Special Ale, which had been brewed annually since 1975. My source was rock-solid, so I ran with it on Twitter immediately, but I also reached out to the third-party public-relations agent I’ve interacted with in the past who reps Anchor to see if the company cared to comment. She briefly confirmed my reporting, then looped in with a new guy named Sam Singer, who delivered some boilerplate, attributed to both Sapporo USA and Anchor, about how Our Special Ale was expensive, the craft brewing market is shifting, they had to make a change, yadda yadda. Not only did this contradict what Anchor workers were telling me, it didn’t track with me for a bunch of other reasons I detailed in my 6/15 column at VinePair.
I don’t know whether Anchor had recently retained Singer in early June when I was reporting that story, but in the half-decade that I’ve reported on Anchor, I’d never interacted with him or even heard his name. Me not knowing him isn’t notable in itself: some companies have long-tenured in-house comms people, others run through hired guns like Raylan Givens at an oxy bust, and most are somewhere in between. But Singer himself is notable: he’s an award-winning crisis-PR pro who counts massive corporations (Chevron, Nike, Coca-Cola) and influential organizations (Stanford Public Health, the NAACP) amongst his client roster. In a dozen-plus years of reporting on the U.S. beer business, I have never come across that kind of freelance firepower flacking for a brewery of Anchor’s size—or even Sapporo USA’s size.
That a high-end (and surely pricey) PR operative showed up in my inbox running point for the latter firm just a month prior to its most controversial stretch running the former could be mere coincidence. Or, it could be an indication that Sapporo USA’s execs knew they were gonna need a sophisticated messenger to help them spin away any blame for the bomb they were about to drop. Either way, Singer would soon deliver in a big way for his brewing client.