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Talkin’ social media at UC Davis

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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.


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.


Sonoma to everybody else: We’re here, and we’re not Napa!

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It’s an old saw by now: Sonoma County winemakers lament that when they’re on the road, promoting their wines, people ask them, “Where in Napa Valley is Sonoma?”

It would be funny, if it weren’t so sad. Readers of this blog obviously know all about Sonoma County, and how it has 11 different American Viticultural Areas. But my readers are a special breed. The fact is that the majority of wine drinkers in America and abroad don’t know enough about our geography. That’s not their fault, of course. Why should they? Instead, it’s the responsibility of the Sonomans to engage in an educational campaign to let people know that Sonoma is not in Napa Valley and has nothing to do with Napa Valley (except that the two areas are next door to each other).

Now, it turns out that the Sonoma County Vintners is doing just that. The Santa Rosa Press Democract wrote yesterday that a coalition of some 50 “local wine industry leaders” from Sonoma worked together last year to come up with a plan. I’m not privy to the details, but the article says the committee “selected three words to define the wine region’s character: genuine, independent and adventurous.”

Educational campaigns of the sort the Sonomans are attempting are very difficult. You have to un-do the incorrect perceptions people have, which experience teaches us is extraordinarily hard, and then replace them with correct perceptions. You have to communicate to millions of people, which in a huge country like the U.S. is almost impossible and also terribly expensive, so fractured are our communities and media. And if you roll in foreign markets, the job’s even more challenging. It can be made a little easier by narrowing your focus, so instead of trying to talk to everyone, you zoom in on a select audience; call it the “cable TV approach.” It sounds like the Sonomans are doing just that: they will target “’experience seekers’ who enjoy traveling and dining out,” in other words, people with money in their pocket to pay premium Sonoma prices.

I wonder about that “genuine, independent and adventurous” thing. It sounds to me like it came out of a committee. Yet the devil’s in the details. “Genuine” is good: it implies that Sonoma wine comes from a real place that’s ideal for fine wine production, and made by real, passionate people, all of which is true. “Independent” is a little murky. Independent of what–big corporations? That’s not strictly true; Sonoma is no more “independent” than anyplace else, as far as I can tell. “Independent” is a nice word, but what is the message the Sonomans hope to communicate? Then there’s “adventurous.” I can practically hear the discussion that led up to that: “Let’s be the maverick to Napa Valley’s mainstream.” Since they can’t be Napa Valley, they can be the scrappy alternative, the choice of wine lovers who don’t want to go the predictable route. This is a little risky, since there’s always a downside involved in adventures. After all, some adventures go horribly awry. But in general, “adventurous” works in advertising, especially with a younger demographic that’s into taking chances and exploring new things.

I hope the new marketing approach works. Sonoma County has had this identity problem for years, compounded by a certain tension between the sub-appellations (Dry Creek Valley, Russian River Valley, Alexander Valley, etc.),  individual wineries and the Mothership. It’s been hard for all the parties to work together in harmony; in this, Sonoma’s been a little behind some of the other wine counties in California. It will take time, but I do believe the Sonomans can make it work. It’s hard selling a phony message, but in this case, the message is true: Sonoma really does produce some of the greatest wine in California. And it’s not in Napa Valley.


Winery P.R. tools embrace much more than social media

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I’m unable to participate in Rusty Eddy’s class on Winery P.R. at U.C. Davis this year, because I have to be–no, make that want to be in Santa Barbara on Dec. 2, but I promised Rusty I’d give the class some promo, so here it is: It’s this Friday, from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. You can sign up online here, for a cost of $190. Worth it!

Participants in the class, at which I’ve guest lectured for years, are winery P.R. people, or those who want to be. They’re looking, I suppose, for any additional insight in how to be better at their jobs. Four or five years ago, there was barely a mention of social media in the class. Instead, attendees wanted to know about stuff like how to prepare a press kit, write a press release, and how to pitch an article to a wine writer. They also wanted to know about the 100 point system and the more arcane aspects of wine criticism.

All of a sudden, around 2008, it began to shift. Suddenly, blogs, Twitter and Facebook were all the rage. It was as profound a paradigm shift as you could ask for.

I wonder what the students will want to know about this year. My own feeling–and that’s all it is, a feeling, because I have no empirical evidence to support it–is that the social media thing may have peaked when it comes to winery P.R. I just don’t sense the excitement, the breakthrough gee-whiz breathlessness that accompanied social media 2008-2010. In that little window of time, social media seemed to be the be-all and end-all of winery P.R. and marketing, the magic bullet that would overturn traditional forms of publicity and replace it with an online revolution in which anyone could participate, more or less for free. Heady stuff, for a winery on a budget.

Looking back now, during this winter of economic and social discontent, it’s hard to believe how naive everyone was. Did people really believe that social media could sell out a warehouse of SKUs, with a single keystroke? They did. But that’s what happens when you have stardust in your eyes: you don’t see things clearly.

Yes, there always were voices of reason arguing that social media was but a single arrow in the quiver, and possibly not even the one that went the furthest or sank the deepest. But those voices were all but drowned out by competing views that social media had changed everything, was destroying traditional P.R., and would reward those who hopped on its bandwagon while punishing everyone who stayed off.

Be honest now. Does anyone still make that claim?

I think a couple things combined to make social media less of a star than it purported to be. One was inherent in the concept itself: social media is merely a way for people to mass-communicate. That’s good, but what does it have to do with selling wine? Not much. People said social media would replace other sorts of sales techniques with peer-to-peer recommendations. Actually, that happened all too well. The peer-to-peer space is shared by an expanding universe of sources. A million peer-to-peer networks result in a million different wines being recommended, each for about 15 nanoseconds of fame.

Another reason the social media revolution failed was because of the Recession. Funny how an event that seemed historic at the time can be vaporized by another event that has truly Historic with-a-capital-H ramifications: namely, the collapse of the global economy. Maybe, just maybe social media could have been more helpful for wineries, if there hadn’t been a meltdown and people actually had the disposable income to buy wine. But that’s a hypothetical situation we can dispense with.

Everything feels like it’s in stasis these days. Black Friday and Cyber Monday aside, nobody’s buying, nobody’s spending, nobody’s hiring, nobody’s lending. If I were a young grad student wanting to move into winery P.R. and attending Rusty’s class, I think my first question to his guests (Sara Schneider from Sunset and Paul Mabray from VinTank) would be: Now that we’ve seen the limitations of social media for winery P.R., what traditional approaches do you believe will work? If I had to answer that question, I’d say that in addition to (not in place of) social media, a winery should have someone representing it who is ultra-skilled at captivating the media. That person might come from internal P.R. or external P.R., or it might be someone like Robert Mondavi, Gary Pisoni or Jayson Woodbridge, none of whom needed P.R. agents at all because they were such dynamic geniuses on their own. Of course, not everyone has that level of flash, which is why God invented public relations. As to the exact form of P.R. that works, impossible to say. It depends on the winery situation. If there were a formula, everyone would know it by now. Obviously, there isn’t.

Anyhow, like I wrote, I’ll be in beautiful Santa Barbara this week, reporting for Wine Enthusiast, doing a big blind tasting of local wines and, hopefully, coming up with interesting posts for my blog!


PR still vital after all these years

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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.


Branding. It’s not as easy as you think

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A lot of people have been asking me for advice lately. No, not advice on wines, advice on branding. As in, “How do we get consumers to understand and respect our brand?” The “brand” can be a particular winery, a type of wine or a wine region. Whatever it is, people seem to value my take on branding.

There are reasons for this. One is that I’ve been around for a while, and they think I must have figured out a thing or three in all these years. Which is correct; I have. I’m not a marketer or a P.R. expert or a salesman, but I have worked with marketers and P.R. experts and salespeople, and have some inkling about what they do, and how and why they do it. I see also how they do things wrong. So that gives me some insights into the fine art of marketing.

Critics also have their finger on the public’s pulse in a way that no one else in the industry does. The critic is in the fungible position of being the middleman between the consuming public and the industry; in fact, we’re the only middleman there is. The critic’s role is similar to the public defender’s, or the ombudsman’s at a newspaper. Someone has to represent the consumer, the average person who doesn’t have a voice, who may be getting ripped off, who needs help weeding through the conflicting and often phony messages she gets from the wine industry. That’s where we critics perform what is perhaps the most satisfactory and moral part of our job.

We critics have a feel for what people are feeling and thinking–what they’re going through, how they see things, their most fundamental sensations and thoughts. There’s a lot more to being a wine writer than merely being a wine “expert.” You need to have skills in psychology and sociology and even in politics, in order to effectively understand the marketplace.

That’s why being dialed into the news–political, economic, cultural, business, artistic, sports–helps a wine writer. Wine and its consumption don’t exist in a vacuum. They’re linked to everything else in the culture. When a giant wave moves through the culture–“Sideways,” for example–it doesn’t spring sui generis from someone’s brow (with due respect to Rex Pickett). No, it’s part of an irruption within the broader culture, the result of myriad forces, all converging at once, for complicated reasons; that Rex Pickett was the repository of these forces is almost random. The election of Barack Obama was an example of the convergence of powerful societal forces; so is the rise of the Tea Party. Steve Jobs has a genius for causing waves. Marketing people hope and pray that whatever thing they’re marketing will achieve such an irruption. Making a big wave is the wet dream of the marketing pro. But it’s very hard (no pun intended) to achieve.

The main reason people are asking for my advice is because they’re desperate. When times were flush, which they were pre-Recession, they didn’t need my advice, or anybody else’s, because their product, whatever it was, sold itself. Nowadays, nothing sells itself; everything has to be sold. That involves effort on the part of the seller, but a lot of these sellers aren’t used to selling. They don’t know how to put their shoulder to the wheel, or even where the wheel is. There’s a sense of flailing: hire a social media director, maybe that’ll do it! How about a label comb-over? Let’s cut the price and pray. Fire the old winemaker and hire a new one! Pick riper, plaster new oak-like flavors on! Bring on some pricey marketing consultant to tell us what to do! Sell the stuff off as bulk; at least that’ll make some money. And when none of that works, the ultimate Hail Mary: call Heimoff.

I don’t mean to mock these troubled people who are reaching out. I’ve always had a sense of how to market stuff. I don’t like the technical aspects of selling–I mean, actually having to go out and interact with people, some of whom you may not like, some of whom may be repellent. It’s discomfiting to try and convince someone to buy something they don’t really need. But I’m pretty good at the big picture. I like the creative part of marketing. For example, here’s what I told some sparkling wine people who came to me for advice. My idea for a T.V. commercial is based on the premise that a lot of men think sparkling wine is for sissies (you know, flutes, pinky extended), not “real men.”

We’re inside a sports bar. Big game on the overhead T.V., pounding rock and roll music from the stereo system. Place is packed with young, boistrous, laughing guys, like in those old Miller Lite and Bud commercials. Guy walks up to the bar, alone. Not bad looking, maybe a little nerdy, average “everyman.” Everybody else is chugging beer. Guy orders a glass of sparkling wine. Suddenly, total silence. Everybody looks at the guy. WTF? Who is this creep? Not one of us, that’s for sure. Then, out of nowhere, a beautiful woman, the most gorgeous, sexy lady you’ve ever seen, joins the guy. Guy says to the bartender, “Another sparkling wine for the lady.”

Message: the guy with the sparkling wine gets the date. The beer chuggers are total losers who go home alone.

To effectively brand something, you can’t just come up with a message that you like. It’s not about your opinion; what you think is bupkes. You have to get inside other people’s heads and understand where they’re coming from. The successful brands of the future will do exactly that.


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