CommsCon21: How PR helped to save Britain’s pubs during a lockdown

Earlier this month, junior account executive, Leah Benthin, attended the virtual #CommsCon21 which saw some of the top minds in PR and comms set the future of the industry in motion.

The sessions were full of interesting information such as the state of the media in 2021, how to innovate responsibly amid periods of disruption, and how to effectively measure PR results and insights.

One of the sessions focused on perhaps the biggest challenge the hospitality industry has ever faced; the closure of all pubs due to the COVID-19 pandemic. During the session, viewers heard from Maeve Atkins, External Communications Manager at Budweiser Brewing Group, who was involved in the company’s ‘Save Pub Life’ PR campaign.

What is ‘Save Pub Life’?

March 20th, 2020 is a day that the hospitality industry in Britain will never forget. This was the day that Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, instructed all pubs and restaurants to close in order to slow the spread of coronavirus, with no indication of when the industry would re-open.

This was the beginning of a very uncertain time for the industry; everything ground to a halt overnight, the furlough scheme didn’t exist yet, and pubs all over the country had extra stock that was now unsellable.

Budweiser Brewing Group recognised this and made a decision to support our pubs; the pillars of the community that make up such a big part of our culture. One week after pubs were ordered to close, Budweiser launched ‘Save Pub Life’ – a campaign which aimed to give pubs cash and help them stay afloat during the lockdown.

The lack of cash flowing through the industry risked a lot of pubs going out of business, so Budweiser set up a platform where people could buy gift cards for their favourite pub, to be spent when they reopened. Budweiser then matched the amount of every gift card purchased and sent the cash to pubs straight away.

What stood out about the campaign was its inclusivity of all pubs throughout the whole country – participating pubs did not have to stock Budweiser products and the gift card didn’t have to be spent on Budweiser products either.

PR techniques

Budweiser used a combination of editorial and paid-for media throughout the campaign, but mainly focused on achieving organic results to free up as much budget as possible for gift card matching.

Due to the huge impact that celebrities and ‘influencers’ have in the media, it was suggested that Budweiser brought celebrities onboard to boost the campaign, perhaps even celebrities that owned pubs. However, it was apparent that this would use up a large chunk of budget, so the decision was made to push the campaign organically to begin with. This stage of the campaign – named ‘Rallying the community’ – consisted of launching the platform, pitching the story out to the media and posting organic social media posts. It was quickly evident that the story had both a trade and corporate angle, as well as being a consumer PR story, so it was picked up by a range of different media outlets, such as The Times, Sky News and The Morning Advertiser, without the need for spend.

However, later on in the year when the lockdown had been going on for some time, Budweiser realised they needed to put some spend behind the campaign to keep the momentum going. The second stage of the campaign – named ‘Absence makes the heart grow fonder’ – saw Budweiser use their budget to organise a broadcast day with local radio stations, as well as commissioning a survey into the public’s attitudes towards pubs reopening which were then turned into case studies.

The final stage of the campaign – named ‘A safe return’ – began on 4th July 2020, the day that pubs were able to reopen to the public. On this day, Budweiser stopped selling gift cards, as they had reached their target goal and it was now time for the gift cards to be spent. At this point, the gift card platform transitioned into a platform that offered support for re-opening pubs, giving them a place to purchase takeaway cups, PPE and hand sanitiser at a discounted price.

Lockdown number two (and three!)

When it was announced that pubs must close again in November 2020, Budweiser decided to re-launch the campaign with a Christmas twist. Members of the public were encouraged to purchase gift cards as Christmas presents, which Budweiser then matched and sent the purchaser a gift card for the same amount.

The aim of this was to bring people together and encourage them to spend time in the pub together, when it is allowed. Additionally, Budweiser also incorporated a safe drinking message into this stage of the campaign – using their zero-alcohol beer in the advertisements to encourage people to drink responsibly over the holidays, and when the pubs re-open.

Results

As a result of the ‘Save Pub Life’ campaign, thousands of gift cards were purchased to be spent at almost 2000 pubs across the UK. Gift card values averaged around £35, and every pub received the money directly from Budweiser as soon as the gift card was purchased.

On 4th July, the day of reopening, the campaign gained 25 pieces of national coverage, 34 pieces of regional coverage, and 108 mentions on broadcast outlets. These included The Telegraph, The Times, Sky News, The Sun, and The Morning Advertiser, just to name a few.

To this day, Budweiser has raised £1.5m for pubs across the country, exceeding their target of £1m, and played a vital role in keeping many pubs in business throughout this unprecedented time.

Whilst there is uncertainty over the next phase of the campaign, Budweiser is working hard to figure out how it will continue to work and provide support to pubs across the UK, and the campaign now shapes Budweiser’s future plans for supporting Britain’s pubs, whenever they reopen.