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When winery P.R. people get it wrong

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I seldom name names on this blog; my readers know that. There’s very little point in antagonizing people who already have their knickers in a twist. So I won’t identify the name of the winery whose P.R. people complained about something I wrote that they claimed was incorrect. Fact is, I was right, they were wrong, end of story.

The particular issue was concerning what were the winery’s first releases, when they opened many decades ago. I had said one thing, basing my information on extensive published reporting as well as content on the winery’s own website. The P.R. people made a counter claim. Now, in the long scheme of things, it’s not the most vital thing in the world, but the P.R. people were pretty upset. They complained to my editor, who forwarded me their email for reply. So I hit the books, did my research and proved conclusively that what I had initially written was correct.

It’s not that I don’t get things wrong. Every reporter does. That’s why they invented the “corrections” section of major magazines and newspapers. There’s usually no shame in getting something wrong, although there obviously is a spectrum of mistakes. Misspelling somebody’s name is very minor. Getting somebody’s birth date wrong is minor. Misstating the name of a company that purchased the winery is a fairly major boo-boo [that’s not what I did, I’m just using it as an example]. Still, no reporter likes to get anything wrong, no matter how minor, which is why we research our facts until we’re pretty darned sure we’ve got them right. Then, and only then, do we hit the “send” button.

But the question in this case is, how could the P.R. people not have gotten it right? After all, they work at the winery. They should know what the facts are. Here’s my theory–and this most recent instance isn’t the only time this has happened. It is not infrequent.

It usually starts with a major figure in the winery [owner, GM, head of communications] who reads something he or she doesn’t like. That person then instructs the P.R. person to complain. The P.R. person, who more likely than not is young and inexperienced, dashes off a “correction” to the writer or the writer’s editor. The P.R. person doesn’t research the issue herself, or ask the owner if he or she is absolutely, positively true that the offending statement is untrue. Instead, the P.R. person does what most people do who want to protect their job and CYA: they complain to the writer or editor.

I once had a P.R. person complain to my editor that, in describing the wines of a particular region as “relatively expensive,” I had done that region a disservice–had, in fact, distorted the truth and insulted it. The letter was very angry. My editor demanded a reply. It took me hours of researching my database to determine that, on average, the region in question was expensive, just as I’d thought–not as dear as Napa Valley, but more on average than any other region in California. (The quality of the wines on average was also better.) So a whole lot of angst was raised, and time wasted, over something that never should have been an issue in the first place. (By the way, when that P.R. person eventually left his/her job, he/she confessed to me how guilty they felt [I know “they” is wrong in this case, but I’m getting tired of the “he/she” thing].)

The point is that sometimes P.R. people write and say dumb things. If it’s because they don’t know any better, then they’re in over their heads. If they do know better, but are afraid to stand up to their boss, then they’re bad hires. Part of P.R. is to speak truth to power, even when that power signs your paycheck.

Wineries, your P.R. people are your public face. It’s vital that you give them independence of thought and action. Your veracity is only as good as their public statements. And in this day and age, veracity–transparency–believability–call it what you will–counts more than ever.

  1. Steve,

    I think you’ve been a contracted freelancer working out of house in Oakland for too long.

    The statement, “If it’s because they don’t know any better, then they’re in over their heads. If they do know better, but are afraid to stand up to their boss, then they’re bad hires” is almost felonious in its lack of understanding of what it is to be an employee these days.

    Yes, in a perfect world, two-way dialogue, pragmatism and an essential search for the core of the issue is important, but that’s the exception, not the rule in employee relations these days.

  2. Kurt Burris says:

    I agree about the need for the P.R. people to have some degree of independence. However, the wine industry seems to have more than it’s fair share of over sized egos. And the last thing some of these egos want to her is the truth. Whether it’s coming from the cellar, the sales staff or their P.R. department.

  3. As a pr manager I’m glad I’ve never been wrong. Seriously, we are all human and everyone makes mistakes. The trick is owning up to them and moving on.

  4. I have far less quibble with PR folks who may get it wrong than I do with those few winery owners whose skins are so thin that any review not 90 points is an insult.

    Had one well-known winery cut off for that reason. Had another say about an 88-point review, “You just do not like our style”, and a third call me up, chew me out, stop sending wines because we did not like one Chardonnay out of ten or more we had reviewed very highly. Funny thing is that the wine showed up again about two years later. Maybe some other folks did not like some of their wines and sales slowed down.

    It is one thing to be challenged on facts, although I certainly agree with you that civility ought to be part of any conversation, but is another to be hammered for an honest review.

    I did not send the wine back, as my first responsibility (as is yours) is to the readers, but I was tempted. We are human after all, and insults do rankle. Perhaps that is the lesson for the day. Feel free to disagree, but please be civil. Let’s not turn wine conversations into some bastardized form of the Republican primaries.

  5. “Wineries, your P.R. people are your public face. It’s vital that you give them independence of thought and action. Your veracity is only as good as their public statements. And in this day and age, veracity–transparency–believability–call it what you will–counts more than ever.”

    I love this statement for a number of reasons. The smart wineries get this, that because of social media, people are going to find out one way or another the true spirit of a brand (people talking about real life experiences with the brand on FB, Twitter, Blogs, Yelp, etc.)

    Jeff, I can’t fully agree with your statements. I am a normally employed Joe and you are right, these days, your boss says do this and you do it, as long as it is in the frame-work of ethics. But PR companies and staff are hired to speak for the winery, give it voice, and they should do this in an honest way. Sure, this will mean there are times one must find a way to make an unpleasant reality more pleasant, but if PR personnel are openly making things appear as they aren’t, they are doing customers and their clients a disservice.

    There is a well know PR guru in my hood. There is a story I have heard that they were contacted by a wealthy winery owner to represent his brand. I was told that this PR guru told him to his face (in a polite manner I am sure) that he had no story, he was just a rich guy who bought a winery. In other words, I will work with you, but don’t expect me to make the story something it is not, let’s find other things of interest that we can talk about in an open way.

    Anything short of that, and the increasingly savvy public sees right through it. I do.

  6. Wayne: “he had no story, he was just a rich guy who bought a winery.” Love that! I’ve seen it dozens of times. No story at all, except the uber-mansion/winery/hired gun winemaker.

  7. Charlie, like you I am seeing lots of wines that were initially sent to me 6 months ago, 1 year ago, even two years ago! They can’t sell the stuff, but they keep on trying.

  8. Jeff, I may work out of my house, but don’t forget I’m an employee, and there’s something called “the telephone” and “the email” that keep me in constant touch with headquarters. So I understand full well the parameters of “employee relations these days.”

  9. Seems to me if I employ a PR person to get out my brand message, that’s what they are supposed to do. It is the job of the journalist – not the PR person – to “speak truth to power.”

    The most ethical thing a PR person can do is promote as clearly as possible the image of the entity by which they are being paid. The increasingly savvy consumer can figure out if there is authenticity or fakery behind the promotion.

  10. Chris Hammell says:

    [I know “they” is wrong in this case, but I’m getting tired of the “he/she” thing]

    +1 and a genuine LOL

  11. John Kelly, yours is an old-fashioned view. Consumers today demand authenticity, truth and transparency. If an owner tells an employee to lie or spin, it’s sad and desperate.

  12. True, Steve, true – regarding consumers. I believe that my view is not so much old-fashioned as it is cynical, as I believe that many owners do still tell their employees to “lie and spin” – or at least to paint a rose-colored-glasses picture. Sad desperation is all to common in our business and political culture these days.

    But if I retain someone to do PR for me and they decide that it is more important to “speak to power” than to do the job I have hired them to do (which I will claim publicly is not to lie and spin) their tenure will be short indeed.

  13. John Kelly, if you and your PR hire reach the point where you disagree on the kind of basic message you allude to, then you are a bad hirer. An owner and her P.R. representative should be on the same page. An intensive interview will help determine that.

  14. That’s also true. But if we are on the same page then why would there ever be a need to “speak truth to power”? And I don’t mean the expected back and forth of ideas.

  15. I believe your story, but in many ways it is beyond belief. The idea that someone would seek out publicity, give a writer a story, get something in return, in print and then kvetch to the writer about the way it was written is beyond my understanding. And to go over the writer’s head and complain to his boss is absolutely insane. If the winery wants to precisely control the way their story is told, they should buy advertising.

  16. Morton, you got that right! Welcome to my world.

  17. Subjects who feel maligned often complain to the editor or to the publisher, not the writer.
    Actually, a complaint (whether accurate or due to image/politics/bad PR) is better than no response from the subject. It lets the subject vent and the editor/publisher discuss/defend/correct in order to move forward with a relatively clean slate. Believe me, editors receive such emails and calls daily. They need the writer’s input to resolve the situation.
    One quibble, Steve. The most important fact is spelling the name right. Of all things, an incorrect name is what the subject and the readers who know remember and this mistake makes all the other facts less reliable.

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  1. NEWSFETCH – February 3, 2012 | Wine Industry Insight - [...] When winery P.R. people get it wrong [...]

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