What’s on Tap: Karen Hamilton of Lagunitas Brewing Company on Internal and External Communications

September 1, 2016

Karen Hamilton
Karen Hamilton

Karen Hamilton wanted to be a writer when she was growing up, the most important thing she’s learned in her 34-year communications career is “flexibility,” she believes that consumer engagement will continue to be a top focus in the profession, she loves nature and she likes to say that “beer is a great social lubricant.”

As the director of communications for the Lagunitas Brewing Company, Hamilton travels back and forth between the Petaluma, Calif. headquarters and Chicago production brewery (which will soon have the capacity to produce nearly a million barrels of beer per year) to oversee all internal and external communications globally.

Her brother, Lagunitas founder Tony Magee, asked her to come on board in 2005 to represent his growing brand as its first representative east of the Rocky Mountains, and previous years working in sales helped her build the brand in Chicago and launch it in 20 east-of-the-Rockies states. Since her start as the fifth sales rep for Lagunitas, Hamilton has served in a series of sales, marketing and management roles for the company.

Hamilton continues to live in Chicago. She’s the proud mother of three grown daughters as well as a busy household of pets. Her late Border Collie “Hershey Hamilton” was the first Lagunitas Chicago dog — known and loved by all the founding employees and early visitors. One of the brewery’s massive beer tanks now bears his name.

What are some challenges and exciting things in your role at Lagunitas?

Creating an entirely new department within Lagunitas — I joke that I began with a romping, stomping team of one! In the last nine months, we’ve expanded to five. We had to create an engaging and effective internal communications program to share information across the country with three breweries, five “other” sites, a U.S. sales team of over 100 and now globally. We also had to create our first real PR program and develop expanded media contacts and relationships. It is all so much fun! Externally, my job is to take the programs, stories and vibe of Lagunitas, and get it all out there. I am meeting the best people, having the best conversations and creating the best relationships.

How does Lagunitas engage today’s digital consumers?

By delivering a message that, at its core, is so true to our brand that the honesty and sincerity of it speaks to people in a way that the coolest “messaging” cannot. We use the basics to connect (Facebook, Twitter, our website) and try to provide experiences that inspire others to talk about us. For us, it’s all about the beer — and the party!

What’s the best way to align, connect and inspire today’s employees?

Keeping our employees informed on what is happening is important. Everything is moving fast and it’s exciting, so we all want to know what’s newest and coolest. It’s creating a feeling of connection among all 850 of us that spans time and place. We are doing this through our intranet, employee events and social outings, and provide Tuesday breakfast at our breweries and Friday lunch! It’s a great opportunity to have people come together from different departments. We have an exchange program between our locations to learn and share ideas.

How does Lagunitas stand out from other craft breweries?

We’ve been at this for 23 years — there are lessons learned that only time and experience can teach. Second, we are fortunate to make some pretty good beers! And we’ve had the good fortune to rise with the exciting tide of American craft beer. Third, to use an overused word, our brand has an authenticity that comes from an innate groundedness and telling the truth. It’s not hard to keep your messages on brand when you are relaying truth.

What are the keys to implementing strong, strategic storytelling?

Think of it as a piece of literature. Write it out, craft the words and the order of the delivery, keep it simple and create a compelling piece of writing. Say the story out loud. Then read it again. Do you want to read beyond the first line? Are you drawn in? If you aren’t, then no one else will be either. Does it tell the story you want? Is there passion? Storytelling is an art — it’s a creation and requires great care.

What are best practices for influencer outreach and brand communications?

Make friends first. Be interested in the other person, put your agenda aside and find the common ground.

How would you describe your leadership style at Lagunitas?

I believe in the team concept — the “together everyone achieves more” idea. I’ve had years of leadership experience and am connected to this style. There’s a difference in a manager vs. a leader — leaders create vision, roll up their sleeves and work side by side with their team to create something amazing. I have phrases that I relay to my teams: “You cannot lead where you have not gone” and “you cannot be a great leader until you’ve been a great follower.” I don’t know anything better than working with people to produce something cool — then, you must celebrate! We’re very into celebrating at Lagunitas.

What advice do you have for new pros looking to break into the profession?

Learn to write — please! Be willing to start at the bottom, just get in there and do some work. Learn and look for opportunities that present themselves where you can grow. While I never strayed too far in my 34-year career, it was definitely not a straight line to where I am. I took chances, pay cuts, risks. It’s not always easy, but it is worth it in the end. About a year ago, I finally moved into the position that was perfect for me. So I spent 33 years getting ready.

What role does public relations play in protecting the Lagunitas brand?

We watch to be sure we are being perceived in the way we intend. And we are an ever-evolving company, so one of my jobs is to spread the interesting story of our evolution and share the exciting things we create. It could be an event, a cause we support or a new, exciting beer. As the craft business becomes more mature, brands can get old if they are not evolving. And if they are evolving and not getting those stories out, they might as well not be evolving. Public relations protects our brand by keeping our relevance public.

Is there anything special that Lagunitas has coming down the pipeline?

Our IPA is the No. 1 selling IPA in the country! Our global expansion is particularly exciting because it’s giving me the opportunity to learn about the big and small differences in cultures throughout the world. We made it into all 50 states about a year ago, and the next great frontier for American craft is the world.

Locally, we just produced our first beer in cans! This is a big deal because we said that we would be the last of the larger American craft brewers to can — and we are! The beer is appropriately called the 12th of Never.

Getting to Know… Karen Hamilton

Any three dinner guests — past or present?

Michelle Obama, Charlene de Carvalho-Heineken and Mary Kay Ash

Favorite movie?

“Love Actually”

Best advice ever received?

“Don’t dwell on the past unless you plan on living there.”

Amy Jacques

Amy Jacques is the managing editor of publications for PRSA. A native of Greenville, S.C., she holds a master’s degree in arts journalism from Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School. She also holds a bachelor’s degree in advertising from the University of Georgia’s Grady College and a certificate in magazine and website publishing from New York University.


Kathleen Failla says:

Kudos to Amy Jacques on her well-written interview with Karen Hamilton. Karen's personality and wisdom shine through. Thank you, PRSA.

Sept. 15, 2016

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