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Talkin’ social media at UC Davis


For the fourteenth year in a row, my old friend Rusty Eddy is conducting his PR for Small Wineries seminar at the University of California, Davis. And, as he has for many years, he’s asked me to participate.

When I first started, the things I told the students about were mainly how I, as a writer/critic, feel about PR people, what I wish they’d do differently, how they can help a writer in his job, how to pitch a story, what makes for a good or a bad press release, and stuff like that.

But about 4 years ago, things started to change. Social media was in the air, on everyone’s lips. The focus of the seminar changed abruptly, reflecting the greater shift that was occurring in the world. Students no longer wanted to know the ins and outs of preparing a good press kit. Instead, they wanted to know how a winery should use Twitter. This shift eventually persuaded Rusty to change the name of the seminar. It is now called “PR and Social Media for Small Wineries.” [You can still sign up for the Nov. 3o class.]

Despite, or perhaps because of, this shift in tone and content, Rusty still invites me because, as he says, “we want to know what propelled Steve from an unknown blogger a few years ago to one of the most-read online blogs.” On his panel, I’m something of an anomaly. The others are Jo and Jose Diaz, the husband-and-wife team that run Diaz Communications, a  top winery [and other product] marketing and public relations and web development firm, and Paul Mabray, chief strategy officer at VinTank. If you ask me what Vintank is or does, I’ll answer in Rusty’s words:  “We want to know what the heck VinTank is and why we should all be using it.” Paul has been a frequent commenter on my blog; when social media requires a good defense, there’s nobody better than Paul, for he’s super-passionate on the subject.

So the reason I’m an anomaly is because Jo and Jose, on the one hand, and Paul, on the other, both have a dog in the social media race. I don’t. In a sense, the students will benefit more from Jo, Jose and Paul than from me, because I can’t really give them any advice to help guide their future careers, which presumably will be connected with winery PR. All I can do is talk to them from the perspective of a guy they’ll probably be working with.

From Rusty’s assignment email: “We’ll discuss how PR has changed in the wine business over the last 10 years, but I’ll also insist that the basics of good PR practice still remain the same. Delivery methods and strategies have certainly changed, but one still needs to know how to write a good headline (subject line) and paragraph, and more importantly, how to find a brand identity and tell the story behind a brand in a compelling manner.”

Can’t argue with that. The key, of course, is Rusty’s final point: “how to find a brand identity and tell the story.” That’s harder than ever. In California alone, we have more wineries than ever before, hence more stories, and the truth of the matter is that most of these stories are pretty much alike. “Jim and Joan made their money in [high tech, medical devices, banking, real estate development, Hollywood], then were inspired by a vision to start their winery.” Or “Tom and Tina did it the hard way: with very little money, they bought their spread, cleared the land, planted vines and…”. I don’t mean to sound cynical, it’s just a fact.

What I’ll be telling the students is the best way to get a writer to hear you out is to be able to help that writer in fundamental ways. Writers are workers. We have needs, and we can use all the help we can get: setting up tastings, keeping us informed of developments in wine areas, coming up with story ideas, even doing fundamental research, which is time-consuming. If a PR person calls me and says, “I have a winery client who offers a $25 three-course menu in the tasting room, plus a spa treatment for an additional $50,” I’ll say, “Find me four other wineries that do something similar and I can say it’s a trend.” Writers love trends. One thing doesn’t constitute a trend; five do.

Which brings us back to social media. Trend–or here to stay? Obviously social media isn’t going anywhere, and yet in some respects the vast majority of wineries still don’t quite know what to do with it–especially the little family wineries where everybody’s already wearing six hats. If you’re Kendall-Jackson, you have a large and sophisticated staff (in-house and external) to do your social media for you, as well as a budget that can afford to think outside the box and develop new applications. If your winery consists of mom, dad, and a kid or two, running everything from sales and marketing to vineyard management to winemaking, you’re lucky to get six hours of sleep a night, much less master the arcane arts of Twitter, Facebook and a frequently-updated blog.

I think this is why some people say I “hate” social media, or am at best a social media denier: because I point out the challenges. But I also think that’s why Rusty continues to invite me. Truth, or should I say reality, is complicated, and when you’re a college student, you need to know the truth in all of its multi-facted aspects.

  1. Steve, for the record we fit the category of Mom, pop and kid running a winery.

    Social media for me is about getting the repeated message out there, that reminds folks that we have a winery and tasting room, we’re a fun place to visit, and have great wine. How we do that is by posting simple, short, not even complete sentences about new happenings, our dogs, a picture of a new release, promotion. or a new retail item.

    I had to chuckle when you said you didn’t have a dog in the race….I am much more inclined to read one of your posts when they have a picture of Gus. Our dogs have become as well known as our wines. People actually call to see if they will be at the winery the day they plan their visit.

    I feel it’s important to keep social media, light, both personally and on the business front. I also think people want to see post from the prospective of home and business life.

    Steve, I enjoy your writing and photo’s of trips, and most importantly your dog.

  2. “what propelled Steve from an unknown blogger a few years ago to one of the most-read online blogs.”

    Steve, I realize these aren’t your words, but I am so confused how you view yourself. Do you really think you were “unknown” before you started your blog? Yes, your blog has introduced the California Editor for Wine Enthusiast to a broader audience than just through your day job alone, but you seem to contradict yourself about yourself. Are you the authoritarian uber-critic you sometimes claim (or wish to be) or the scrappy no-name writer that did it the hard way? You knock wineries’ stories (see above, and not that I disagree with that assessment), but at least most have only one story…

  3. Dear Chris Brown, thanks. I’ll try to work Gus into my posts more often, but he’s really more of a Facebook dog.

  4. Rusty Eddy says:

    It always turns out to be a fun class, but it’s the speakers that make it valuable. As a facilitator, I feel like it’s my job to point people in the right direction and to inspire, especially by inviting folks who know much more than I do to speak. Thanks, Steve, for the plug.

  5. When I was three or four years into the business I was friends with two successful PR guys. One did PR for one of the largest spirit brands, the other did PR for one of the largest selling wines. The spirit guy was good looking, athletic, outgoing and sported a perpetual tan. The wine guy was smart, a great writer, worked behind the scenes, never had a tan. The spirit guy could hook you up with a wind surfing contest, a cool t shirt, a party, or a pretty girl; the wine guy a serious wine tasting, a speaking engagement or an interview.

    In my youth I thought that the wine PR guy had it right, and the spirit guy couldn’t promote wine properly. I guess now in my “late middle age” age, I’m beginning to think the opposite.

  6. I’m still not sure why you write these sorts of articles. You don’t contribute anything to a discussion on social media; if anything you are fixated on clinging to the old notions of old marketing. You’re a master equivocator. New Marketing is a two way street, build upon communication, and bridged by social media.

    What bothers me is that you hardly ever seem to elaborate on success stories, good examples of SM usage, or anything that furthers a discussion of the subject. Your whole image with respect to the topic is, self-admittedly, one of a stubborn old guy who won’t budge from his pedestal. I don’t personally do any social media with my clients, but at the same time, I believe its am important vessel for communication and have seen and heard numerous stories of new wine club members, sales, and visits to the tasting room generated from social media interactions. For small wineries, it’s extremely important and doesn’t require mastering any arcane arts. All that’s required is to share slices of their lives, stories, and be real.

    As Pope said in his Essay on Criticism, “It’s harder to say if greater want of skill be found in writing, or in judging ill”.

  7. Our dog the Aussie loves your blogs! Keep up the good work.

  8. Victoria Amato says:

    Must say…I greatly enjoyed the PR (and social media) class today…Although personally, I was hoping for a little more PR and a little less social media. As a “millennial” I feel inundated with social media advice (webinars, lectures, panels, reports, interviews, circuses!!! etc.)…all about how important social media and building relationships are. I get it…and I agree…and I even ENJOY partaking in all of the “noise!”

    But as someone new to the PR game (I was pretty much tossed into a PR role…and luckily, I’m fascinated by it) I want to know what makes writers tick. And I appreciate the fundamentals…which sadly, I felt were skipped over.

    So I’ll do my best in catching up to the “old school” way of doing things…Because I think we can agree that old school is the new, new school!

    Thanks again, for writing me back when I’ve emailed you. Let me know if you’re willing to guinea-pig for my first official “pitch.” (God I hate that word!)

  9. Victoria, my pleasure, Feel free to call anytime.

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