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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.

  1. “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.”

    Somehow I got on the list for these PR pitches and get 2-6 a week. They are mostly horrible and I cannot imagine what they have to do with me. Your point above Steve is right on. You can tell right away if it is someone who really knows what makes their client tick, or are they just trying to find a small measure of success by sheer quantity. It’s like casting a wide net and snaring sardines, instead of strategically trying to lure in the right fish.

    I do work with a few great PR firms, but they take the time to understand what I do and then look for ways that fits in with their clientel.

    This is a timley post. All of these points go for Social Media marketing too.

  2. Steve,
    This sounds like one of my stump speeches when I talk to companies about PR, although you deliver it with far more eloquence! Tailoring a pitch to an individual writer and connecting to a trend are two important practices that are within a PR person’s control. There’s no real secret to PR. You need to put yourself in the editor or writer’s position and ask yourself, what would be interesting to them. I don’t think PR will become an anachronism, but to prevent that, the practice of PR must evolve to incorporate new mediums and communications channels.
    Thanks for devoting some time and space to this topic. Give my regards to Alan!

  3. Well said, Steve. Lots of wineries today get distracted by social media and forget there’s a ‘hungry mouth’ waiting to be fed with real stories, real content, delivered in a personal way by someone they’ve dealt with for a long period of time! And then there’s the conversation about public relations as a discipline—is it science, ‘art,’ luck, journalism, etc. etc.?!

  4. Well put, Steve.

    Most wineries are also confused by the type of PR company they need to work with. It would be challenging at best for a PR professional to speak to the nuances of wine and wine trends unless they have a contextual understanding that comes with a professional wine industry background.

    Having worked in PR/marcom on the supply and wholesale side, I know what it means to taste with critics, writers/editors. I will have a good idea how a particular writer will react to a wine because I have spent time tasting and traveling with them, and follow their work.

    When wineries hire PR agencies without wine expertise, they will be throwing money out the window. Same goes for wineries that name someone in-house to be their PR person, yet last week that individual may have been working in the tasting room. I also find it amusing when PR agencies establish a wine specialty group, and then have no one on board with industry credentials. Experience, innovation and relationships are key to wine PR success.

    Lastly, wineries expect immediate results after years of non-activity. It takes time to build a good PR program from ground zero. Certain tools, such as a properly articulated website, need to be in place. The mere existence of a website and Facebook page does not mean the content delivers! For most publications, editorial calendars are set months in advance, so there is a lag-time before articles appear.

    Vineyards produce wine three years after planting, and wineries should be prepared to take one to three years to ramp up their PR program for consistent, growing impact to their bottom line.

  5. Bill Smart says:

    This is a great post and is a must read for all of us PR peeps. Since Kim (DCV’s owner) started her blog 4 years ago, she is now on the circuit for press releases and invites to media junkets and such. We’ve learned together about what NOT to do. It’s been such a great education. It’s so funny to me when one of my colleagues in PR pitches Kim to come on some kind of trade/press junket to Portgual or something. Don’t they even read what she’s writing about? It’s so lazy. I think it’s an insult to the writer’s valuable time to fill up their inbox with just crap. Most wine writers have “day” jobs – PR people have to be respectful of that.

  6. As always, you’re brilliant…. belly dancers et al.

  7. Interesting & informative Steve (Monika too).

    An added thought is that writers outside of the mainstream media are getting to know each other, their style and their individual niches/angle. Makes me want to create a carefully crafted database of my coterie of online writers instead of just clicking on headlines or following a few of the same folks. An exercise like this could help winery staff and non-pro PR folks do a better job without years of being a PR insider.

  8. Great reminder Steve. A big thanks to you and Alan for keeping this subject fresh. The pace of life and work goes so quickly sometimes, that we need a reminder to slow it down, listen and learn. It’s so much about relationships and meeting the needs of both parties for the end goal. Respect!

  9. Ron Saikowski says:

    PR is like a Woman’s bathing suit. It should be adequate enough to cover the subject, but brief enough to be interesting!

  10. Hi Steve and fellow commentators:

    I loved this piece and find value in all the replies. Here is the quote I provided Alan:

    “Engaging in social media is almost like having your own PR department. You are initiating a conversation about your winery and presenting your brand to the public. Traditional media approaches like press releases, advertizing, and submitting wines for review are still important, but for small wineries the potential new audience reach and the low cost of entry around social media are very compelling”.

    My perspective is based on working with small production wineries in Willamette Valley (typically less than 5,000 cases). While PR has great value, the cost of doing it right can be prohibitive.

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