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The truth about winery PR people

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Hacks? Flacks? Floozies? The negative descriptors were flying in comments made by readers after my Oct. 27 post, So what did I learn at the Wine Bloggers Conference?, on my Wine Enthusiast blog. I didn’t even mention public relations, but midway through the extensive comments (26 and counting) the drift turned toward PR, and some controversial attitudes were revealed.

It started with Lenndeavors’ remark that the WBC was “a  bit too PR heavy.” I, too, had noticed the presence of a large number of PR people at the conference, both self-employed and those working for big wine corporations, but my reaction wasn’t a negative one. Instead, it didn’t surprise me at all. Any PR professional who could have gone to the WBC, but didn’t, isn’t performing her job very well.

“Joel” rose to PR’s defense by pointing out the same thing: PR people need to understand what the blogosphere is, and so they come to events like the WBC to see it up close and personal. Jo Diaz, who runs her own PR firm in Sonoma County (and who also blogs), agreed. Jo self-deprecatingly used the term “hack.” [From the German; related to our word “hook.” Colloquially, a person hired to do routine, dull writing, which you'll never find here!] After that, things headed south. Mia Malm (who, last I knew, did PR for Robert Mondavi) felt it necessary to defend her profession. So did Tia Butts, who I believe also works for Mondavi. (Mia and Tia, forgive me if I’m wrong.)

I did get the impression, both at the WBC and in its aftermath, that there was unease among some bloggers at how many PR people came to the event. If this was true, it must have been largely restricted to younger bloggers, who may not understand the role that PR professionals play. In fact, PR people are a vital part of the gigantic machine that rolls the wine industry forward every day. Don’t get me wrong: as I said in my Credibility seminar (and have said many times elsewhere), PR people will use us writers if they can, and if we let them. But then, we writers use wineries and winemakers for our needs, don’t we? I’ve never blamed PR people for what they do, and I rather admire them. It’s their job to get publicity for their clients, and if they’re good, they’ll devise ways of doing it that are aboveboard and intellectually defensible.

Yes, there are times I’ve been frustrated with the way some of them just spin and spin, like the Republican attack machine against Obama. And yet, PR people can be a writer/critic’s best friend. They’ve been enormously helpful to me in all sorts of ways, without ever expecting any favoritism when it comes to scores or reviews for their clients. (In fact, one of the most important things PR people do is explain to their clients how the industry works, which in turn makes writers’ jobs easier.) I couldn’t imagine the wine industry without PR people, and I’m happy to let them do what they’re paid to do: Pitch stories to me. So let’s be kind to PR people. Far from being flacks, hacks or floozies, they’re true professionals with a big job, often working under trying circumstances.

Here’s a list of some top winery PR companies. I’ve worked with most of them.

P.S. I blogged the other day about The 800 Pound Gorilla in China’s Wine Industry. Now, check out this blog post from someone who defends Chinese wine against charges of adulteration and deception.

  1. By younger, do you mean the physical age of the blogger or the age of the blog? If it’s the former, I’m not sure I take your point well, since someone who is 65 and just started a blog with no prior experience with PR people seems to be just as susceptible to “not getting” the role of a PR person as anyone else.

    I understand the role of PR people and I certainly understand why they were at the WBC. Blogs are the “new” thing and if they are going to be a vehicle to promote the brands the PR people represent, of course they are going to want to jump on the opportunity to study a large group of bloggers at one time to see how the whole blog thing works. If there had been more space at the WBC, I’m sure there would have been an even greater number of PR people in attendance.

  2. Sonadora, my point was simply that some people at the WBC didn’t appear to be comfortable in the midst of so many PR people. There’s actually an interesting conversation this morning at Good Grape blog (see Tish’s comment) on the interaction between writers/critics and PR folk. This is a fertile area for bloggers to analyze.

  3. In my humble opinion, many bloggers of wine who are just starting out (younger, regardless of age) went to the WBC, only to find themselves in a professional world… Filled with PR hacks, flacks, and floozies. (This works, because it’s Halloween, and gives me many costumes for the day!)

    Frankly, I don’t care what they call me (or I call myself), as long as “they” call me (the writer community).

    I found it amusing that a wine blogger would take offense to us being there. It just shows the naivete of business to which they’ve entered.

    The wine business is a fairly polished world, and welcome to the crib, kids!

  4. Dr. Horowitz says:

    Steve!!! I just posted a comment and got this:

    “Error establishing a database connection”

    Rain in Santa Rosa is not my friend this am. My last comment is now in comment heaven.

    Take II.

    Some of the PR at the conference was great: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RYJ6pjmnn3A. Some was not so great. I think I threw out most of the stuff in my bag without looking at it. Sorry trees.

    The price of the conference was ridiculously, ridiculously, good. I’ll put up with being told at dinner that all of the 63 wineries in Dry Creek Valley are family owned except for one if my food and wine is dirt cheap. That zin at dinner was my favorite, 93 points.

    I think that part of the wine blogger ethos is being anti-establishment and unafraid to explore uncharted territory. Therefore, in the face of the establishment asking about this uncharted territory, it was not surprising to see wine bloggers uneasy, no uninterested?, no I don’t want to give away all my secrets to you go discover it yourself like I did?, no meh?…

  5. Hi Steve,

    Thanks for standing up for us PR folks. I think this is just a case of people discovering what this space is all about. I’ve said before (mostly on Twitter) that PR is evolving and will need to adapt to survive in this brave new world of Social Media. The smart PR folks will be right there with the rest of us in engaging bloggers and establishing relationships. That is what social media is all about. Those that don’t adapt will become relics and find themselves left behind.

    Mike.

  6. Thanks Steve for standing up for us PR folks. This seems to me to be everybody just trying to figure out their roles and how to work together. I’ve said it before (mostly on Twitter) that the field of PR is evolving. Smart PR folks will engage and establish relationships with bloggers. Get to know them and their needs. In that sense, it is really no different from engaging traditional media. Unfortunately, there are still a lot of us out there that don’t do their groundwork. Those folks will eventually be left behind.

    Mike.

  7. Thanks for adding your perspective, Steve. There are many of us who genuinely wish to be a valued resource and if we do our job well, that’s what we are. (FYI, I think Tia works for Benson now and I work for Icon Estates, which does include Robert Mondavi Winery)

    Jo, I generally go by “flack”, it just has a nice ring…but “hey you” works too.

  8. Hi Steve!

    We’re all just doing our best to understand the big wide world of blogging and social media. I’ve been “tweating” away this week since the conference, learning as I go.

    I think all my colleagues have hit the big points here. Thanks for the post and for involving us in the conversation.

  9. I wasn’t there, sadly.
    I would have seen the “hack pack” (following the flow of alliteration here) as a great opportunity to make contact. I write across several aspects of wine and therefore I am not always a known commodity.
    If you are not known you can end up in the reply/call back black hole. (Diageo is at the top of my list, followed by WSWA.)
    When questions are answered, I am thankful, stories are better and knowledgeable readers, I hope, have at least a little more confidence that the content is credible.
    Constellation Wines Australia (BRL Hardy) gets extra points as last week I asked a question, got the reply immediately and a follow-up. In my very recent experience, Gallo, Moet. TTB, and Wilson-Daniels (among others), would rather we are accurate and so turn around a query fast (it’s much easier than a correction or lawsuit..or being left out).
    So, is everything great? No. Deadlines seem to be a big problem for some in PR. And I would imagine it will only become more so as the babel gets louder.

  10. Mia… love the “hey you,” and generally go by “publicist” ;^)

    I got flippant with my early entry, and it was fun to see it evolve.

    I’m old enough school to have “earned” it the old fashioned way… But, never take myself so seriously that I still can’t have fun with the process.

  11. Morton Leslie says:

    Wine journalists have basically four sources of information. The primary one is from the wine industry’s PR effort. It has been this way since the first words were written about wine. The second source a educational institutions and wine research as reported in scientific journals. Journalists rarely go to these sources because they are technical and require an understanding of math, physics,chemistry, biochemistry and scientific method. This is hard work compared to regurgitating a winery’s spin and requires a great understanding in order to present it in a digestible fashion. The third, of course, would be ones own experience in grape growing and wine making. This experience is usually minuscule and usually provided in winery “workshops” or “seminars.” (more spin) Finally there are other journalists where the myths and spin we create in our PR planning sessions reverberate back and forth between journalists as they read each others stories.

    The extent to which wine writing is a symbiotic relationship between winery PR and the wine writer is never really appreciated. It’s repercussions are significant. I would say that the majority, if not all winemakers, significantly modify their winemaking either in practice or in “story” to fit a narrative that they want the wine journalist to present to the consumer.

    Between blogging and print there is a difference. Print writers are jaded. They’ve been to our vineyard seminars, blending sessions, boot camps, wine pairing dinners by celebrity chef, junkets to Europe, and nights out on the town. The print media have more boxes of wine coming to their houses than they can manage. You have to be really creative just to get their attention. But this is all new to the average blogger and they are fresh and (sorry) relatively naive and much easier to influence. Fresh meat.

  12. Morton, you show an uncanny understanding of the industry. Who the heck are you anyhow? When you say “Print writers are jaded” I think to some extent you’re right, in that junkets, dinners and schwag are largely meaningless to me. But that jadedness (or whatever you want to call it) also makes me raise the bar higher for myself: If I have to write another article on Cabernet Sauvignon (the umpteenth in 20 years), then I demand of myself that it be the best article on Cabernet I ever wrote — that it explore new areas, open new lines of thought, expose new angles.

  13. I’d just like to mention that my comment about PR people at WBC was taken out of context.

    My point was merely that for the credibility session to have been better than it was, there needed to be more bloggers in the room. I think there were more PR folks than bloggers there. For there to be a balanced discussion, it would have been great if more of my fellow bloggers had attended the session.

    Carry on.

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