PR still vital after all these years
My old friend, Alan Goldfarb, who works in winery PR, asked for my views on the future of PR–what works, what doesn’t. Here’s what I emailed him. I’ll go into more detail later in this post:
I think PR is more important than ever to help a winery stand out from the competition. But it has to be good PR in order to be effective.
Otherwise, the winery is just throwing money away. The best PR firms identify the relevant media outlets, and then work to cultivate relationships with key people. A pitch that’s simply sent out in a blast email or mailing is a waste of time, in my opinion.
There’s no “one size fits all” when it comes to a pitch. A good PR agent knows her writers and editors. She crafts pitches individually and personally. Finally, a smart PR agent understands that writers often are looking for trend pieces, which are very popular with publishers these days. Instead of just pitching your client’s particular story (e.g., “used to be a belly dancer, now owns a winery”), try pitching a story on “The trend of nightclub entertainers, including belly dancers, standup comics and vocalists, to start up wineries.” That is much more likely to elicit a writer’s interest than one particular story.
[That's what I wrote.] PR, properly speaking, is simply the function of getting a writer’s or editor’s (and, via them, the public’s) attention for the publicist’s client. What the writer does, once you’ve attracted his notice, is beyond the publicist’s control, of course. But there are things a publicist can do to increase the chance that the writer will take the bait and actually write about the client.
In this market of increased competition from all over the world, not to mention downward pressure on prices and an increasingly volatile, unpredictable market due to the entrance of a brand new demographic, people under 30, wineries need more help than ever in getting people to notice them. Unless the winery has a captive audience (maybe they’re selling 90% through the tasting room and/or club), or if they’re exceptionally well known and in demand (Harlan), most wineries really do need to get out there and hustle.
When I say the best PR firms identify the relevant media outlets, and work to cultivate relationships with key people, I know whereof I speak. I’ve dealt with a lot of PR people for a long time. I’ve seen them come and go, and learned a few tricks of the trade, because it’s people like me whom the publicists practice their craft upon. When you’re on the receiving end of the pitch, you see how the pitchers do their thing.
If a publicist sends out a mass email, it has a deadening, boring effect. I don’t want to feel like the sender didn’t even know my name, like I’m just some digital bit in a faceless electronic mob. I want my publicists to know who I am, who I work for, what my needs are. I want them to want to help me do my job better, so I can help my editors do their jobs better. That’s what this thing is all about: we all have jobs, and we all should be trying to help those with whom we work do their jobs better.
A mass email tells me nothing. Besides, they’re usually so blandly written that they’re more like a lesson in how not to write a press release. Publicists try to inject a sense of excitement into a blast email, but it almost never works. Instead, it just feels phony-excited–like the publicist herself was bored with the assignment, and couldn’t even pretend to find anything interesting to say about it. Of course, that’s a dilemma for a publicist. What do they do when the client has an essentially boring story, and insists on telling it in a boring way? I don’t know. But a good publicist, it seems to me, must be like a good psychotherapist–be willing to tell the client when the message sucks, and how to improve it.
The trend thing I wrote about is real (although the specific example of the belly dancer is pretty silly). I could have substituted “professional athletes”, “rock and roll stars” or “movie stars.” Which do you think would make a more compelling story: Boz Scaggs has a winery, or “Rock stars, seeking life after the hits stop coming, turn to the wine business.” I might read the former, but if I saw a headline, with some familiar names, along the lines of the latter, I would definitely read it.
I, personally, don’t know how many rock stars (or athletes, or movie stars) are starting wineries, so when a publicist pitches a specific instance to me, I’ll reply, “If you can do your homework and come up with a list of six other rock stars [or athletes or movie stars] who also have started wineries in California, I’ll write the article.” That turns the story into a trend piece. Of course, the publicist has to do a little more work, but she’s basically guaranteed to get a story that will at least mention her client–which is better than no story at all.
It’s very hard these days to succeed in anything to do with the wine industry if you’re lazy.
One final consideration: Under other circumstances, I might have thought that PR is a dead science, like alchemy or midwifery, a practice that thrived once upon a time, but has now lost its rationale. There is something medieval about PR: the publicist as cloaked magician, in possession of mystic secrets that, with a dash of eye of the newt and a swift “hocus pocus,” can unlock the mysteries of political and economic success. Surely, in this age of the Internet and social media, there must be more modern ways of publicity.
But as it turns out, there aren’t. PR may someday be an anachronism, but today it remains a vital, if someone untransparent, way of doing business. The tools of PR have changed–the press kit is on the way out, replaced by electronic tools, for example–but the underlying concept remains the same: to persuade the public to pay attention to the client.