A-B Losing the PR War to InBev

Potential Buyer Comes Off Better Than Brewer in Public-Relations Battle

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- The King of Beers is getting royally routed in the spin war surrounding its bid to remain independent.

Belgium-based, Brazilian-run InBev not only has largely succeeded in controlling the media's narrative of its $46 billion takeover bid for Anheuser-Busch, it's also managed to emerge looking more sympathetic in the process. That's no small feat for a foreign company with a reputation for savage cost cutting, which is laying siege to an iconic, family-run U.S. marketer associated with well-loved symbols such as the Clydesdales.
Anheuser-Busch CEO August Busch IV
Anheuser-Busch CEO August Busch IV

Public-relations experts, analysts and journalists covering the saga attribute InBev's public-relations coup to an open and aggressive approach that has involved a barrage of well-placed leaks, public appearances and online video messages from its CEO, Carlos Brito, as well as a torrent of public letters to A-B and its board making a case for the deal. By contrast, A-B resorted to a reactive, bunkered-down posture. And when it has spoken out, it hasn't always helped itself.

"InBev has often seemed one step ahead," said Benj Steinman, editor of Beer Marketer's Insights, which has followed the takeover bid closely. "They've been like an octopus. They've seemed to be everywhere, covering every angle, while A-B has mostly been quiet."

A-B is advised by Kekst & Co., InBev by the Brunswick Group. Both brewers and their PR firms declined to comment for this story.

The takeover saga began in earnest on May 23, when a highly detailed account of InBev's pending bid appeared in a blog on the Financial Times' website.

A-B's first public response came in a May 27 Wall Street Journal interview with CEO August Busch IV. But instead of laying out a clear case for the company to remain independent, Mr. Busch was quoted at length about his strained relationship with his domineering father, August Busch III, the legendary CEO who built A-B's dominant U.S. position but also, in deciding to pass on many international-expansion opportunities, left A-B vulnerable to takeover by a bigger global player.

"How does that happen?" asked one A-B ad-agency executive. "Somebody ought to be in that room telling him to be quiet."

On June 11, following nearly two weeks of A-B's stock soaring in anticipation of a bid, InBev publicly pounced. It outlined its $46 billion proposal in a letter to A-B that it distributed widely via e-mail, and launched an internet site for its bid. A-B said only that it had received InBev's letter. InBev met with Wall Street analysts. It distributed web videos of a faux "interview" with Mr. Brito, in which he expressed his desire for a peaceful merger, stressed commonalities between A-B and InBev, and fawned over A-B's heritage and culture. InBev also placed an op-ed about its commitment to St. Louis and A-B's heritage in the brewer's hometown paper, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. It even sent Mr. Brito to Washington, where he tried to win over Missouri Sens. Claire McCaskill and Kit Bond, both of whom are opposed to the deal but likely powerless to stop it.

A-B, by contrast, was barely heard from. While it reportedly pursued a defensive merger with Mexico's Grupo Modelo that might have priced it out of InBev's range, the only public statements from the brewer were brief and tersely worded responses to InBev's letters. Typical of that was a June 20 letter from A-B's board announcing it had no response to InBev's offer.

'PR 101'
Public-relations pros said A-B -- which typically takes a very formalized approach to media relations, with its primary media contacts unauthorized to speak on the record with reporters, instead acting as conduits to top executives -- appeared to be struggling to get its side of the story into the press.

"I would tell them to take a more aggressive media posture and talk to key reporters at key publications and tell the back story, whether it's on the record or off, but use the media as your friend," said one executive at a top-10 PR firm. "This is not complicated stuff -- it's PR 101 -- but they don't seem to be doing even that."

A-B, however, does appear to be adapting as the process moves forward. It took nearly a month, but the company shifted into a more proactive stance June 27, one day after InBev indicated it might attempt to remove A-B's board if it rejected the offer. A-B rejected the offer as too low, then announced a plan to cut $1 billion in costs, which analysts said could offer shareholders similar value to InBev's proposal.

That "was very effective in laying out their position," said equity analyst Carrie Schloss of Talon Asset Management, which owns

A-B shares. "People expected a response earlier, but again, I think most people would say that the response that was given was very comprehensive."
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