Is Wine PR Nothing More Than Bribes?

Bribe copyIt is one of the most interesting questions that has ever so naturally formulated itself in front of my eyes: AT WHAT LEVEL OF COURTSHIP SHOULD THE COURTIER TAKE OFFENSE THAT THE OBJECT OF THEIR DESIRE HAS NOT RESPONDED THEY WAY THEY HOPE?

Put another way, how much does a wine producer have to spend on courting a wine writing before they may legitimately be offended that writer has not written about them?

This is the fascinating question implied by this comment by Damien Wilson of the Burgundy School of wine published in Harper’s:

What surprises wine producers is that bloggers could think it is appropriate that producers accept their freedom to write anything after having traveled and been accommodated at the producers expense. Remember, that a producers does not have to agree with a blogger’s perspective. But to not write anything after receiving value in wine, time, restauration and accommodation is simply a one-way transaction. In other descriptions of commerce, one way transfer of value could also be called “theft”.

Clearly Mr. Wilson believes that a certain amount of wine drinking, feeding, housing and travel that leads to no writing by the writer receiving these things is grounds for taking offense. But what if the writer traveled on their own dime to a winery, took a tour, sampled wine from the barrel, and snacked on cheese and charcuterie, then wrote nothing? Would that be grounds for offense—or, as Mr. Wilson implies, a form of “theft”? What if the writer’s travel by train is paid for, but the writer pays for their own accommodations, yet drinks the producers wine and eats their food and never writes anything? Can offense be legitimately taken? What if the writer is doing a piece on a producer’s home region, asks for a sample bottle of wine, receives it but then never writes about the producers? My the producer legitimately take offense?

Here is what I think any producer, marketer, publicist or administrator at a business school ought to understand intuitively: when any amount of funds are expended to introduce a wine product to a writer in the hopes they will cover it, there should be absolutely no moral, ethical or commercial expectation that the expenses ought to result in coverage; and certainly should not immediately result in coverage.

To believe otherwise is a foul misunderstanding of the nature of journalism as well as public relations. In fact, the proper way to understand the expense of courting the press is to see it as providing an education of the writer about a brand or product. One certainly goes about using marketing and media relations with the hopes that the producer’s story will be told as a result. But believing you have paid for results and ought by moral right to receive them will only result in disappointment and a poor relationship with the media.

Here’s the caveat. No writer should ever accept something of value from someone willing to offer it if they know they have no intention of ever writing about the produces or the subject matter they represent.

Mr. Wilson’s mistake is believing (and advising) that Media Relations is akin to a transaction. It’s not a transaction. It is an investment. Paying for a wine writer to travel to and stay at and estate and then feeding them is, in the business world, actually akin to placing an ad in a magazine or on an Internet site. Simply because one paid for the ad one cannot have an expectation that it will result in a specific number of sales. That’s crazy talk. They can hope it will. They can look at past experience with advertising, seeing what worked and what did not, and be confident that some sales will result. They can surely expect that the ad will reach a certain number of people. But to believe by right they ought to receive X number of orders as a result of the ad defies and understanding of marketing.

4 thoughts on “Is Wine PR Nothing More Than Bribes?

  1. this is too true. for both sides, having seen wine writers accept trips with clearly for sport or feeling important and wineries and wine executives expecting a transactional relationship. it’s the job of the Winery, or at least their PR staff, to make their winery and wines worth writing about! period. Naturally no winery is flying someone across the country or the world without hoping for something, but the PR professionals I’ve worked with never “expected” anything but fair consideration and balanced reporting when the time did come. Sometimes these trips wouldn’t pay-off for the winery for years – when the writer had the appropriate story to whichever visit added much valued detail, insight, or experienced which add the color readers are looking for. that said, there can be unprofessional behavior by all involved.

    Tom, thanks for bringing up the subject in hopes that those not so inclined will read this and reconsider their position.

  2. One thing that I did not see mentioned here was the concept of the blogger’s willingness to accept a trip to a certain region or producer with the a priori idea in his head to actually cover that producer or region in their blog.
    A blogger who has no interest in covering prosecco should not accept a trip to Valdobbiadene. If there is a passing interest, then maybe a little prior research and tasting should be done before accepting a trip.
    As a PR person in a winery we are always told not to spam press releases, to tailor our message and to know who we are communicating with in order to appeal to the type of subject matter the blogger is interested in, i.e. No need to send Steve Heimhoff samples of your Friulano because he only ever really writes about CA wine.
    So why would a blogger with no interest in Port accept any invitation to visit the Duoro?

  3. From a writer/bloggers point of view I relish the chance to visit producers and wine regions and really appreciate the investment and time they and the prs put in to organising a trip. I endeavour to cover every producer visited ti one degree or another. I might not mention every wine sampled but I do go with the expectation that something must be written about or a photo uploaded to show appreciation of that investment. I do know a few that perhaps don’t give such a return, which always makes me wonder why they keep getting invited?

  4. Dear Tom, I’m hoping to meet you at some point in coming years. With my pending arrival in the US, to continue my academic career on your hallowed shores, I’d like to take some time to establish some background in the world of wine writing in the US. As a leading wine blogger, I wanted to know if you’ve time to give me your thoughts on the line between hospitality and bribery in the blogging world?

    You may recall my post on that exact topic on this page on Nov 25th last year. It apparently encountered an overactive SPAM filter, if I recall your explanation on twitter correctly. I can’t find it here, but knowing that you don’t moderate posts, I assume that it must be around here somewhere.

    Shall I post it again so as to give this comment some context, or will you be able to put it back up here where it was originally posted?

    Whatever the outcome, capturing your thoughts on this issue would be most appreciated!

    Best from Burgundy,