32 years in: today vs. yesterday

I recently surveyed a number of wine publicists on the topic of “then” vs. “now” for a column in Wine Business Monthly.


After 32 years as a publicist, it recently has seemed to me that the practice of PR has never been more difficult. By that I mean quantifiable results are not only very hard won but the ‘quantifiable’ isn’t always so ‘quantifiable.’ A high score comes along—but is the writer ‘meaningful’ enough, the client will ask. We all are hoping for a ‘silver bullet,’ but disagree about how to launch it or what the components might be.


“I don’t think at its core the practice of public relations has changed all that much,” says James Caudill, Director of Public Relations & Hospitality for The Hess Collection. “What has changed are tactical approaches, the speed and constant din of communication, the need to reach disparate audiences, including international ones.  Elaborate and expensive press kits have given way to flash drives with far deeper levels of information and reference materials,” he adds. “The work week is now quite literally 24/7.  Where I used to focus on a small number of influencers, I consider now that nearly anyone I engage is an influencer for someone, so I try and treat everyone with an equal measure of interest and respect. Fast, responsive, dependable and not at all overly promotional gets you an audience, but then you have to deliver,” he notes. “Our communications tools have expanded and the news cycle is immediate,” says Jan Mettler of Boss Dog Marketing. “In this fast-paced overcrowded world, fundamental principles still apply, including that image is the result of 1,000 consistent acts, not a single score and that you must know your audience (and your audience’s audience).   It is essential to be familiar with writers’ works and publications. In addition, brands must find their core message and be distinctive and memorable,” she adds.


Kimberly Charles, of Charles Communications, suggests that “the art of finding and articulating a great story hasn’t changed, but the means by which we get the story heard has become more challenging, but in a good way.   We now have the medium of video, social media, as well as traditional print, radio and television to tell a story and the audience represents a blend of interested parties be it press, consumers, trade.  It’s great to have all these tools impact audiences simultaneously thereby reinforcing a brand’s reach, but the opportunity to be heard is more challenging.   In my personal experience, I have evolved from a classic publicist to a more strategic marketer, taking in the whole picture of business objectives, sales channels, audiences, geography and finding ways to get a consistent story told across many platforms.”


I lived through a scenario once that spoiled me for defining success in a wine pr context. Back in the early 1980s I had helped introduce Moreau Blanc, a new idea from the venerable Chablis house J. Moreau & Fils. I was working for Frederick Wildman & Sons and the quaint townhouse on the Upper East Side of Manhattan was home both to Wildman’s New York distributorship, with a room full of salesmen deployed to the furthest reaches of the five boroughs, and Wildman’s national sales team, with tentacles across the country.

We had launched Moreau Blanc with an elaborate lunch and tasting for the New York wine writer corps. The next day’s New York Times column sang the praises of the wine. As it happened, I was in the office early and had gone to the distributorship office to drop off some paperwork. I remember vividly standing in the room as all around me phones were almost literally ringing off the hook. I started picking them up—one after another, it was a chorus of voices demanding to buy Moreau Blanc (“how soon can I have some? I have customers lining up at the door!”). That was a PR fantasy come true—a true ‘silver bullet.’ Great wine had been put in the hands of savvy media, who understood a trend in the making and had a thirsty audience ready to pull out their credit cards.


Another solid PR program that was meaningful all around in those days was the wine maker dinner. In the early 1980s in Manhattan the restaurant Lavin’s was one of the first to stage these, and there was a time when I walked the Champagne producer Christian Pol Roger from table to table, each group of people eager to meet him, their faces gleaming, questions and compliments bursting from them as soon as Christian stopped to talk. The diners considered themselves in the presence of a celebrity, and were delighted to bask in what they saw as an enlightened ritual. The most memorable exchange that day came when I presented M. Pol Roger to a personal friend, a wine buff who had come to New York as a young man from his native France. Unbelievably, it turned out that the grandfathers of these two men had known each other, and in fact that my friend’s grandfather had been awarded a medal of bravery and the keys to the city of Epernay after the war by Christian’s grandfather, who was the mayor at the time. So business became personal: of course not every exchange between winemaker and diner was that dramatic, but regardless, everyone involved felt connected and empowered.


Good or bad, winemakers are a dime a dozen today, with their celebrity status sadly a bit diminished, and the ‘winemaker dinner’ has become almost an outdated cliché of a term and a PR program. Yet…yet….an articulate winemaker with a sense of humor can still get the attention of a room full of people—or of a jaded wine writer sitting across the lunch table. That is one effective publicity effort which hasn’t really changed, and which won’t change even as we slide into the future.


One other universal pr basic which remains critically important is a winery’s website: today it functions as a de facto press kit, the storehouse of high-res photos, logos, wine fact sheets and winery history. It’s still every publicist’s fantasy to wake up to fully realized profiles of your winery client, all achieved in the middle of the night, so to speak, because the writer found all of the necessary materials available on the website.


My career has encompassed a full spectrum of programs intended to extend a brand’s identity and reach, ranging from a Guinness Book of World Records entry, to a Thomas Jefferson impersonator presenting a line of Bordeaux wines to re-issuing archival Champagne posters. Then there was the time Vogue’s wine writer loved the bag of vineyard dirt which had been enclosed with a sample shipment: he liked it so much he ran a photo of it next to the wine review. Then there have been events, such as taking over a local movie theater with free community screenings of movies thematically linked to wineries (War Horse for Bello Vineyards, Date Night for Date Night). I’ve arranged live blogging events at wineries, where the wine writer-bloggers shared their experience with their audiences. Then there is the rich vein of working with authors, for example, author Jenny Leggatt traveled to arboreta on the East Coast presenting her new Cooking With Flowers book supported by flower-labeled Bandiera wines. Every publicist considers linking their winery clients with charities and businesses; an example in my playbook was when Smith-Madrone, Chez Panisse and ODC Dance Company all were celebrating their 40th anniversaries the same year.


I recommend that wineries put up blogs and websites for specific programs—MerlotFightsBack.com was an example, where the website was full of content and then amplified in the real world by competitive tastings with the winemaker around the country. What about a website that’s literally just a press kit, full of downloadable materials? An example is www.buccellatrade.com. Or another idea—honor a special wine with its own site, such as www.cooksflat.com.


“What’s stayed the same for the past 15 years is that it’s still our job to tell stories,” says Lisa Adams of Adams Walter Communications. “Stories are now crafted in a way that the information can be disseminated across multiple platforms such as trade news sources, sales outreach channels and social media for various audiences including the media, the trade and consumers, she adds, continuing to explain that “the number of traditional journalists has decreased, while digital media has boomed.” Bill Smart, the Director of Marketing and Communications at Dry Creek Vineyard, explains that “good wine PR people understand how to take something that seems very small and make it seem very large.” “You still need to make great wine but today you have to have a story,” offers Tim McDonald, Wine Spoken Here. “Telling that story is the important piece and PR people are the way to get the story out. There are a million conversations on wine every day and a winery has to have a good reason to be part of those conversations,” he says.


Mia Malm of Malm Communications agrees that what’s harder today is “the explosion of new voices and the decline in number of “A-list” print outlets, meaning there are now hundreds of people you need to know. And at the same time, the competitive landscape for wine brands gets larger every day. So the job of cutting through the noise gets harder and harder,” she says. Harvey Posert, who is a one-man pr consultancy, worked for Robert Mondavi from 1980 until 1996: he notes that “what worked then and would not work now is that writers were hungry.  From 1960-1980 or so, writers and the wine pr people who worked with them had a collaborative spirit — it was “we wine people” versus the vast arid country.  You could have a dozen writers sit together for lunch in a market; you could put together a half dozen Napa Valley vintners in Domaine Chandon’s plane and go to the markets like a hunting band,” he adds.


“The market has matured and today’s playing field is saturated and very competitive,” comments Jan Mettler of Boss Dog Marketing. “Wine quality has improved all over the world and the marketplace is now global.  As far as the Wine Country experience, there are a multitude of brands without either a vineyard or a bricks-and-mortar winery experience.  The town of Healdsburg has more than 40 tasting rooms within walking distance of the plaza,” she adds.


On the other hand, what if the winery is a notable landmark or distinctive in some way? Take Castello di Amorosa in Calistoga, unquestionably one of the wonders of the modern wine world, a one of a kind gold mine as far as pr content is concerned. “The castle is visually stunning, which helps in our digital media pr campaigns,” explains Jim Sullivan, VP PR & Marketing, Castello di Amorosa. “In a digital visual world, where our tools include Pinterest, Instagram and Facebook, pictures are king, so it doesn’t hurt to have a beautiful subject. For us any pr campaign we do incorporates visual images of the castle,” he notes.


Tiffany Van Gorder at Balzac suggests that “PR in the wine business has certainly evolved. Today there are so many more opportunities for wineries to be in direct contact with every level of the market.  We did a recent Twitter Tasting for the Franciacorta Consorzio where two dozen wine bloggers around the country were sent the same set of wines to taste on the same day, at the same time. The resulting reach of the tasting on Twitter was over 1200 Tweets, with over 4,000,000 impressions and reached nearly 300,000 followers. A huge success all around,” she says.


Apart from the aspects of social media as part of pr practices today already mentioned, Mia Malm adds a new wrinkle: “community management and global brand voice is a new aspect of what I do in PR now. This kind of work didn’t exist ten years ago. For example, Wine Institute has representatives all around the world. Many of them thought it would be good to be on social media and random accounts started popping up. There was no consistency of goal, message, logos or naming conventions.  I wrangled them all into consistent social channels and unified their brand presence, and created a protocol, content, and time management tools. The goal was to have a consistent consumer-facing California Wines social presence around the world while still allowing flexibility for local nuance.  It’s been working well and we now have 15 countries with Facebook pages, several Twitter accounts, all singing from the same song sheet.”


Rusty Eddy of Wine Spoken Here gives a specific then-and-now example: “When I was at Glen Ellen we worked with a PR agency and produced a book called “Wine Without An Attitude” to build awareness for the Glen Ellen Proprietor’s Reserve message that wine didn’t have to be expensive to be good, and that it was okay to drink what you liked.  We media trained five winemakers and sent them flying across the country simultaneously to appointments with print and broadcast media.  There was also a coupon component at retail point of sale so consumers could write in for a free copy of the book.  Today, the media appointments would be made via email, the tour would be virtual via Skype and Webinar, the press releases would be sent in regionally-targeted versions over the wires, and the book would be published electronically as a PDF for download.”


New York-based publicist Marsha Palanci, Cornerstone Communications, notes that “when I started the agency, it wouldn’t have crossed my mind to recommend to a client that we hold a late night event for sommeliers.  However, with sommeliers’ increased influence and status as the new rock stars of the hospitality world, we pay special attention to them. Recently we produced several highly effective after-hours tastings around the country for Rías Baixas Albariño wines.  We created environments where sommeliers can taste our clients’ wines in a relaxed, non-pressured environment.”

Bill Smart, the Director of Marketing and Communications at Dry Creek Vineyard, agrees, noting that “top sommeliers can often be as important as an A+ member of the media.”


Definitively new today is the concept of a winery as a producer of content, a publisher. Jim Sullivan explains: “The ability to be a global publisher is in everyone’s reach – it’s their mobile device in their back pocket or their laptop in a wifi-connected coffee shop. And as a result of our connectedness, the pace at which communication happens has quickened substantially and the responsibility of managing the brand in a personal and meaningful way while protecting the reputation of the company has never been greater. Any PR campaign today needs to add value, inspire and uplift people with right message to the right audience.  And because communication today is digital- digital chat, video, apps, mobile, social media, etc., the challenge is to add value while recognizing it’s all about building relationships with real people.” Kimberly Charles has pioneered a publishing approach with her Brandlive channel: “In real-time you’re able to connect with writers, critics, reviewers to assess our clients’ wine, spirits and other beverages directly with the person who crafted them. No longer do we have to go on the road spending money and time traveling to visit writers in person which from time to time had cancellations and missed meetings. Now we can connect virtually online simultaneously with multiple journalists around the country.”

“Words, words, words,” groaned Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady. “Show me,” he shouted. That may well be how PR has changed over the course of the last decade or two: as publicists we now can make all of those words—and stories—come alive through old and new channels, never forgetting that any successful PR is still built one word and one writer at a time. And in fact there may not be one silver bullet any more but a fleet of pr-guided drones, deploying reviews and conversations and awareness, building a buzz many points of light at a time.