Monday, August 31, 2009

The Necessary Tension between Public Relations and Bloggers

After the 2009 Wine Bloggers’ Conference, there were many bloggers who felt that too many public relations and marketing representatives were there. Not only were they there, but they were there to watch.

Megan (Wannabe Wino) wrote in her post “In the Fishbowl”:
“Have you ever felt like a goldfish? It’s quite interesting really. I think the focus of the conference this year seemed to skew more towards wineries, PR folks, and other industry types. And I felt like people were there to figure out what wine bloggers are, what their motivations might be, and how best to market (I think that’s what I want to call it…) to them.”
Russ (Winehiker Witiculture) wrote in his post “The 2009 Wine Bloggers Conference: a foundation for raising the collective spirit”:
“In the hotel’s meeting halls and hallways as well as in some Napa Valley venues, bridges were not particularly being built between bloggers, PR/marketing types, and winery reps. Perhaps those that were not regularly engaged in blogging or other social media avenues were on-hand merely to witness what all the fuss was about.”
These comments inspired me to dig a little deeper into the relationship between bloggers and public relations.

Media professionals and public relations professionals strike a careful balance in the wine industry. Writers jealously guard the access to their audience while starving for information that will continue to entice readers. Public relations agencies that represent wineries have an over abundance of information that they have been charged to communicate to writers, with the intent that these editors will express such information to their audiences. With the rise of the blogosphere, many more writers have entered the arena, creating an ever increasing pool of outlets for information.

Wine bloggers themselves tend to have very little training in terms of writing for an audience craving entertainment and information. The majority of bloggers are website designers, information technology professionals, lawyers and doctors; occupations that have either given them the necessary skills to run a blog or the resources to experience the world of wine, which can be an expensive venture. Their unifying characteristic is an overwhelming passion for an alcoholic beverage created from fermented grape juice.

There is a prevalent desire among wineries and wine producing regions to be on the cutting edge of technology and media. However, the reality is that the majority of wine producers do not have the resources to follow the ever-changing technological landscape of communication. To meet this need, digital technology firms, advertising firms, and public relations agencies are now in a competition to show that each has the best understanding of the new media outlets. The drive to generate results propels winery representatives to target a wider variety of outlets and any result becomes twice as promoted, both to the nebulous consumer as well as to the client, looking for their hired representative to produce. While sometimes misunderstood, a hired agency’s primary objective is to promote their client, with a strong secondary objective to promote themselves back to their client or other potential clients. This makes bloggers a very attractive focus for these agencies.

Bloggers are currently in search of credibility and recognition. Without certifications from wine education channels, such as the Wine & Spirits Education Trust or the Society of Wine Educators, most bloggers have nothing but their word and their writing to give them defined credibility.

Steve Heimoff, blogger and West Coast Editor for Wine Enthusiast responded to a blog post by Shana (, founder of Breath(e) Media and used an example of a wine blogger being invited on a trip to show that wine bloggers can fall into numerous traps that will in the long run hurt their credibility. He wrote in “When blogs go bad”:
“The worst thing a wine blog can do is to shill, however inadvertently, for a winery or region. The minute I read about someone’s “delightful” visit to so-and-so, they’ve lost me. Visits may indeed be delightful, but the writer shouldn’t say so, because it just sounds — I don’t know — smarmy and credulous. If the blogger describes the visit as “delightful” then her credibility suffers, in my mind. What if the wines suck? Would the blogger say so? Or is the blogger so delighted with the visit — with the hospitality of the owners, the personally guided tour of the winery and caves, the lovely luncheon by the pool, catered by the winery chef, and with the gorgeous tranquility of wine country — that he’s unable even to know that the wine is mediocre?”
Shana replied:
“The news (speaking generally) has always had a bias and used scare tactics or fluff stories for the sake of entertainment. I learned at a young age to take the news with a grain of salt… Same goes with anything I read online through a blog, a tweet, a review on Yelp, or even an article in a magazine.

…You stated that you were going to explain the difference of good and bad blogs “for some of us.” My case was that for the rest of us, we read what we like...”
In the end, the only measure of credibility that really matters is the size of a publication’s audience and their influence on the buying habits of other consumers.

Earlier this year Robert Parker was challenged as to the credibility of his contracted reviewers, a charge that Robert Parker has fielded in the past and will likely come across again in the future when he is forced to relinquish his publication to the next generation. However, no matter how many confrontations his publication encounters, the name of Robert Parker is perceived by the wine industry as one of the most influential in the business today because of the influence over consumer purchasing that the Wine Advocate’s ratings embody.

Once a wine writer begins to establish credibility, the agency world begins to take notice, giving a writer more access to different aspects of the industry. The more access a writer has to their subject, the better they become at communicating the nuances and differences, which then in turn leads to better writing and the potential for larger audiences. Then credibility is considered established and the flood of information from the agency world truly begins.

A Survey of Bloggers

In July, I surveyed 100 wine bloggers on their interactions with public relations professionals and wineries. Fifty-one bloggers responded and described an interesting story about how they find their information and how they interact with the public relations world.

Wine bloggers are being reached in a similar manner to how a traditional news reporter is targeted: press releases, focused pitches, invitations to events, etc. The tactics that result in the best response from both types of media are much the same. Mass distributed press releases and story ideas with vague introductions of “Dear Esteemed Blogger” are nearly instantly deleted, while personal correspondence and interaction are rewarded with attention.

And bloggers are definitely being reached. The survey revealed that 60 percent of the bloggers that responded are contacted at least once a week by public relations professionals, with half of those being contacted at least once a day if not more. From anecdotal reports, there are a select group of public relations agencies who are reaching out to bloggers and getting fantastic returns on their outreach. Combined with the fact that wine bloggers read each others’ blogs, the reach of a single blog post can influence another blogger to purchase a wine to review, which then increases the potential audience.

However, just because a public relations agency is reaching out to bloggers does not result in an instant review. The quality of the outreach is extremely important. Only 40 percent of the bloggers surveyed found that public relations assistance was consistently helpful. In fact, 21 percent found that PR people were rarely or never helpful, which highlights the issues of inconsistent quality among the public relations world.

The main complaints that these bloggers had were that they were not being engaged by agencies looking to promote their clients and just being sent mass communications in hopes that they will write about them. What most bloggers do not understand is that this is a common occurrence among traditional journalists and has been a long-time complaint for them as well. This problem is so well documented, that there is a blog set up specifically to expose poorly conceived or written pitches that are sent en-mass to journalists nationally. I leave it to bloggers that are also journalists to tell this story better than I ever could.

The problem stems from lazy public relations practices and just as lazy editorial practices. While it seems impossible for such tactics to yield results, I submit that they must. In the same way that the majority of people would never click on a link in an obviously SPAM e-mail, such e-mails continue because they find people naïve enough to pursue the 2,800,000 Euro prize they won from some far away country, otherwise they would have long ago been abandoned. There are publications and web portals that will publish whatever is sent to them.

Wine bloggers, like the rest of the technologically advanced society, find most of their information on the internet. The survey showed that of the 51 responses, 47 went to the website of the winery to find more information about the wine they taste. The next most common way that most bloggers learn about a winery is by physically visiting the winery. I will accept that this is perhaps biased based on the fact that many wine bloggers live in wine country, however this is a good indicator to show that all aspects of a winery’s image are important, from the wine in the bottle to the people at the tasting room and through to the messaging a winery puts on their website.

It is intriguing how contacting the public relations representative for the winery and reading other bloggers’ reports on the winery were at the same level for the wine bloggers that were interviewed. Almost every wine blogger has a good sense of the other bloggers in the wine category, and especially the top bloggers. The fact that most bloggers do not reach out to PR people as a first course show a possible reluctance on bloggers to trust these contacts for accurate information. It could also be that the public relations contact for a winery is simply not visible enough for a blogger researching a wine to find their information.

Among established wine journalists there has been a prevailing feeling that wine bloggers are only interested in receiving free wine samples, which is what drives a person to blog about wine. There is at least one blogger who promotes themselves as willing to review any wine that is sent to them. There are also plenty of other bloggers, such as Katie (Gonzo Gastronomy) who find this practice distasteful. As for the rest of the wine blogging world, the survey showed the majority of wine bloggers use samples less than 25% of the time to review on their blog. With the current increase in wineries with available samples looking for positive reviews, it is interesting that wine bloggers continue to purchase wines from wineries or trusted retailers in order to find content for their blogs.

Wine bloggers are an ever increasing force in the wine world, and the industry is paying attention. A well written, well researched blog post can become top news in the Wall Street Journal or The New York Times, and has in the past. An event targeting bloggers can spread over dozens of websites. The next step in wine blogger evolution is discovering how the public relations community can work with these writers to not only elevate the wineries and wine regions that they work for, but to also highlight the select bloggers that have influence over consumer audiences.

Note: Rob Bralow has been writing the blog “Wine Post” for almost one year and currently works for Gregory White PR, an agency that represents high profile wine and spirits companies and regions. Any and all ideas and opinions expressed in the above article do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Gregory White PR.

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