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Feature by | Dec 2012 | Issue #71

Illustration by Sergio Membrillas

Brady Walen was running his Daily Pull beer blog, his Crafted blog and a beer-marketing consultancy in Portland, Ore., last year, when a marketing position opened up at the Craft Brewers Alliance. He applied for the position and got it, and promptly quit both blogs and his consultancy.

Walen also dialed back his output on Twitter and Facebook, and stopped using Untappd to review the beers he drank.

“I had adopted the point of view, as this position became a reality for me, that it was important for me to avoid conflict of interest,” Walen says. “Whether that was real conflict of interest or perceived conflict of interest, I didn’t want to be called into question as to where I was headed or what my intentions were with my comments.”

Walen has been marketing communications manager at the Craft Brewers Alliance for more than a year now, and is just starting to return to social media. He now tweets about the breweries and conferences he visits, and the beers he drinks, but to preserve his credibility and avoid conflict, he refrains from writing beer reviews.

“As a blogger without a job working for a brewery, I felt the credibility was there, and the dynamic really changes when you accept a position at a brewery,” says Walen, whose advice to bloggers about exercising caution with their content if they plan to work within the brewing industry drew grumbles at the Beer Bloggers Conference in Indianapolis, Ind., earlier this year. “You have to really look at what you’ve been writing about, what you plan to write about in the future, because those opinions, whether you like it or not, can be construed to be the points of view or representative of the company you work for.”

As beer knowledge becomes a more valued trait for craft beer public relations teams to have, and as the relationship between breweries, brewers guilds, beer publications and beer bloggers gets cozier, hard lines like Walen’s are becoming more difficult to define.

“The key issue here is disclosure,” says Stephen Quigley, associate professor of public relations at Boston University. “That is, no one in the media should tout a brand without disclosing any information that the audience needs to make an informed judgment in their best interest. So if a reporter or a blogger or a food critic is being paid by a brand, they must disclose that. It is one of the core ethical codes for PRSA [Public Relations Society of America]. If a blogger is on a beer company’s payroll and he/she does not disclose that to readers, that’s a big ethical problem. In fact, the Federal Trade Commission mandates disclosure from bloggers.”

Walen made disclosure a non-issue by quitting social media and other side projects altogether. But for those who stay in the game, disclosure becomes a daily concern, as Randy Clemens can attest. Clemens  served as the “media & communications linchpin” for Stone Brewing Co. in Escondido, Calif., from January 2011 to this August, when he sent a mass email to his Stone contacts informing them that he was shifting to a freelance role with the company.

Before joining Stone, Clemens wrote about beer and cuisine for various magazines [including BeerAdvocate, speaking of disclosure —Ed.], and was the author of The Craft of Stone Brewing Co.: Liquid Lore, Epic Recipes, and Unabashed Arrogance—a book he researched and wrote before being hired by Stone and continued to promote after joining the brewery. After being hired into the PR department, his side projects included The Sriracha Cookbook, which was published in 2010, and a vegetarian version of the cookbook slated for publication early next year. He also maintained a personal blog, randyclemens.com, which covers topics in beer, wine and food.

“I’ve always had a lot of irons in the fire and have trouble saying no to people on stuff because it sounds like so much fun and so cool,” Clemens says. “I’d kill myself if I had a factory job where I was just doing the same thing day in and day out.”

Despite all the juggling, Clemens says that the ethical implications of his career choices have been on his mind since first applying for his full-time job at Stone, and that he’s “always tried to keep everything on the up and up” while working full-time with the brewery. In his other writing endeavors, he has heeded Stone’s warning to refrain from making “laudatory statements” about Stone, its distribution partners, bars that sell its beer, or Stone events at Los Angeles Beer Week, which he helped organize for four years.

“I’d ask someone who works in the industry but isn’t tied down to that restriction, like a local beer expert or another beer writer, for their picks in the area,” Clemens says. “It wasn’t me listing my favorite places: I’d create a sidebar and it would be their favorite places. It’s not to circumnavigate the law or anything like that—by all means, I’m trying to abide by it—but there are just little things like that you need to be mindful of.”

In the rare instance that a conflict could have occurred, he has made full disclosure of his work with Stone—for example, in June, when Clemens wrote an article about sour beer for Edible Westside and interviewed Tomme Arthur, of The Lost Abbey, one Stone’s distributing partners. Though he was a few months away from the end of his full-time gig with Stone, Clemens was careful not to endorse the brewery, but merely to quote it, and his job with Stone was cited in a biography that appeared in the same issue of the magazine.

“There’s no real overlap in my mind because they’re different undertakings,” Clemens says. “Both entities continue to be supportive of my writing, and respect the fact that I’m always forthcoming with disclosure so as to dispel any possible notion of a perceived conflict of interest.”

Since leaving Stone in October, Clemens has been freelancing for Los Angeles magazine, the Denver Post and Edible Westside, among others, but he speaks fondly of his experience at Stone.

“I’m very respectful of what I do and the people who are gracious enough to let me do it,” Clemens says. “If I ever thought I was crossing a line, I’d bring it to their attention by any means, but I don’t think that ever really happened.”

Even those with more legal expertise than Clemens fight to juggle multiple roles within craft beer’s communications industry while maintaining credibility. Before this year, Win Bassett was a prosecutor and district attorney in Raleigh, N.C., He prosecuted criminal misdemeanors from speeding tickets and DWIs to drug possession and simple assault, but his heart was in beer writing.

He’d been busy with side projects including freelance writing for local news and beer publications, blogging on the NCBrewing.org site he cofounded, and volunteering with the North Carolina Brewers Guild. In February, he decided that the courtroom was no place for a beer lover. On the same day, he was offered the Brewers Guild’s recently vacated executive director position. He also badgered the publisher of locally based All About Beer magazine to stop paying him as a freelancer and give him a part-time job (he’s since become a full-time employee). He resigned from the DA’s office and started both positions two weeks later.

His leadership role with the Brewers Guild put him front-and-center when Sierra Nevada, New Belgium and Oskar Blues all announced plans to expand into North Carolina. Meanwhile, his new role as head of social media and beer education at All About Beer put him in charge of its Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts, its Brian Yaeger-penned blog, its Beer Talks with Charlie Papazian, Garrett Oliver and other industry experts, and staff tastings at breweries.

Bassett’s only problem is that the jobs have a nasty habit of overlapping.

“Managing conflicts between the magazine (beer coverage worldwide) and the Guild (protecting and promoting North Carolina beer) is one of the more difficult aspects of my two jobs,” says Bassett. “It’s always in the back of my mind, and I make a conscious effort to avoid them. I gladly signed a confidentiality agreement with the Guild when I accepted that position, and both the Guild’s board of directors and my publisher at All About Beer magazine are well aware of my affiliation with each other. Similarly, both groups are supportive of my work for the other one, and both go out of their ways to accomodate any situation where conflicts may arise.”

Sometimes, employers work to erase those lines altogether. Ashley V. Routson, known in craft beer circles as “The Beer Wench,” seems far too busy to be tied down to any one project. She’s a regular presence on Facebook and Twitter promoting her Beer Wench brand, has expanded her online empire to include the sites DrinkWithTheWench.com, BeerMixology.com and IPADay.Org, freelances regularly for CraftBeer.com, and works closely with Whole Foods Market’s corporate offices on virtual Twitter beer tastings and blog content—and she does so while working as full-time “director of awesomeness” for Berkeley, Calif.-based organic brewer Bison Brewing.

Routson’s longtime goal was to work at a brewery, and the combination of her blogging experience and hours spent volunteering at breweries, working on bottling lines and collaborating on recipes, helped her land her present gig at Bison. She now oversees Bison’s production and inventory management, national distributor management, marketing, communications and public relations. Routson says she views bloggers like herself as keys to the brewery’s success.

“I refer to my PR and marketing strategy as the ‘influencing the influencer’ method,” Routson says. “Essentially, we identify and engage bloggers with the strongest and most respected voices online. We also seek community influencers in markets where we distribute our beer. Brand ambassadors are priceless.”

Brand ambassadors—someone with a defined personality who’s publically associated with a product—are nothing new to the beer industry (think a very different beer brand ambassador: actor Jonathan Goldsmith, aka Dos Equis’ “Most Interesting Man in the World”). But Routson herself is one of those respected, well-known bloggers.

“‘Brand ambassador’ is a general term for anyone who is passionate about a brand,” says Quigley, from Boston University. “So, they’re as old as time, but new media have definitely given them a remarkable mix of powerful options for sharing their passion with others. Since we’re all ‘media outlets’ today, the traditional power of ‘word of mouth’ has been turbocharged.”

Through her role at Bison, Routson considers herself and her coworkers ambassadors of “craft beer, craft wine, craft spirits, slow food, and all things organic and sustainable.” She has endorsed Bison and its products in her personal writing, disclosing her connection to the brewery on her LinkedIn and Facebook pages, the profile pages of her blog, and in her bios on BeerMixology.com, CraftBeer.com and Whole Foods. Only her Twitter profile lacks such disclosure.

Clemens recently worked with Routson on a blog entry pairing beers with vegetarian entrées. Like Routson, Clemens had more experience with beer than with public relations. He says that folks like himself and Routson who started outside the PR community are becoming more palatable to small brewers because they’re more familiar.

“If you put yourself in the shoes of a craft brewer, someone who enters a market where they’ve been told they’re crazy and have sold everything they have to get where they are, they’re fiercely protective of their company and product,” he says, noting that people often judge a beer before they even sip it, looking instead at the brewery’s social media, PR and even the graphic design of its labels. “They’re going to want someone they see at your brewery and at events, and they will look inside their circles for solutions.”

CBA’s Walen maintains that even though a writer’s lack of exclusivity may not lead to actual conflict of interest, even a perceived conflict can damage a marketing or PR person’s credibility and unwittingly make the words a reflection on the company they represent. Because blogs are such a personal expression and work best when the blogger stakes him- or herself to a pageview-drawing opinion, bloggers can inextricably tie themselves to reviews or conclusions about products or companies that can follow them for years.

“My choice was driven by the fact that, at any good agency, you don’t want your point of view and judgement to be biased or swayed,” Walen says. “You want to go into it with a clear head and one motive.”

Routson bristles at the notion that endorsements of Bison and the endorsement of other breweries’ beers on her sites present a conflict of interest and notes that her bosses at Bison not only approve, but talk about their experiences with other beers on social networking sites as well.

“My passions and interests span over a large spectrum, and I share my enthusiasm for all of them, no holds barred, on social media,” Routson says. “And frankly, no one has the right to tell me to do otherwise. “