The art (and business) of storytelling

A closer look at the value-add offered by PR firms

By Jillian Mitchell

Stories foster connection. But what you may not know is stories also foster conversion, driving both brand exposure and sales.

Hiring a public relations (PR) agency is an essential first step in creating a great strategy or “story” that aptly showcases the people behind the product. The trick is knowing when (or if) to take the plunge.

All by myself?

A common PR question circumventing most industries: Can’t I just do it myself?

“With the right connections, to a degree, you can do it yourself,” says Kate MacDougall, a principal at Camber Communications out of Vancouver, B.C., “but an agency offers long-term strategy and really helps you identify and capitalize on brand milestones, timely product placements, and seasonal and trending opportunities. It’s more than just hoping you get a mention in a local publication.”

Leeann Froese of Vancouver-based PR firm Town Hall agrees. “[PR firms are] the ones with [their] fingers on the pulse,” says Froese, who worked in media relations for many of Canada’s top wineries before starting Town Hall a year ago. “Just because you have a paintbrush doesn’t mean you can paint a work of art; just because you have a contact list doesn’t mean you know how to use it. We know how to secure the kind of coverage our clients seek.”

Christine Coletta of the Okanagan Crush Pad uses Town Hall PR firm for their public relations services.
Christine Coletta of the Okanagan Crush Pad uses Town Hall PR firm for their public relations services.

Froese aims to gain her clients “wins” and has garnered scores of them for clients like B.C.-based winery Okanagan Crush Pad. Client Christine Coletta, owner of Okanagan Crush Pad, cites the media relations services offered by Town Hall as exemplary—and time saving.

“We’ve always used an outside PR firm,” says Coletta, who owned a consulting business for two decades (where she worked with Froese) prior to starting a winery in 2011. “They’ve got the contacts, they can dedicate the time, and they can point you in the right direction.”

An example of the right direction, Coletta’s winery has dedicated a lot of resources on photography, under the encouragement of Town Hall. “Again if I hadn’t been in [media relations] myself, I probably wouldn’t have understood the importance of that,” says Coletta. “A lot of wineries don’t necessarily have the tools they need in order to tell their story properly. I really know the importance of [PR] because I saw firsthand; I would never attempt to do it myself directly.”

How do I know when to hire a firm?

Southbrook Vineyards, situated in Ontario’s Niagara-on-the-Lake, began using a PR firm early this year. The decision to hire a third-party was predetermined by the owner for a few reasons, says Paul DeCampo, director of marketing & sales at Southbrook Vineyards—the number-one reason, however, was the launch of their proprietary product Bioflavia, an organic red-wine grape powder with antioxidant attributes.

“We felt that it would be beneficial to bring in outside expertise,” says DeCampo, whose employer opted to work with Toronto’s Siren Communications for the launch. “Also, in conversation with potential distributors, it was suggested that a PR firm would be useful (in the launch).”

For the launch, the PR firm compiled the appropriate short-term and long-term strategies and accompanying tactics, and of the working relationship, DeCampo was pleased.

“Certainly there is benefit here. It’s another set of eyes and ears, more experience,” he says. “Of course, we retain the ultimate responsibility for those strategies, but it’s certainly beneficial to discuss it with the firm for input and ideas.”

Deciphering whether or not to hire a PR firm depends on scale, adds DeCampo. “If you really only need 400 to 500 core households to buy your wine per year, and you were going to manage those sales directly through your winery, perhaps it wouldn’t be so necessary,” he says. “And, if you were a very large corporation, you would already have this capability in-house. For us, being middle-sized, I think in that context there is benefit there.”

And sometimes it’s a case of marking special occasions. Take for instance Tinhorn Creek Vineyards in B.C.’s Okanagan, who this year celebrates their 20th anniversary. Though the Tinhorn team handles their marketing initiatives in-house, they leave external PR to the Hawksworth Communications team, whom they have worked with for two years. The latest task at hand? Getting the word out about the vineyard’s anniversary celebration.

“PR is very specialized; part marketing and Hawksworth experts. We are talking to them constantly about new opportunities that come up,” says Lindsey White, Tinhorn Creek Vineyards, of Hawksworth. “By having Hawksworth as part of our marketing team, the rest of us can concentrate on other marketing initiatives.”

Hawksworth principal, Annabel Hawksworth, echoes White’s sentiments. “Whether our goal is to boost event ticket sales or to elevate the brand through telling a more in-depth story, [PR agencies] ensure key messages are communicated effectively to the right audience,” Hawksworth says. “Our agency provides fully cohesive communications counsel that includes outreach to traditional and digital media, including social media strategy. We know which editors will cover what and beyond that, the outlets and platforms that will garner the most effective results for our clients.”

How do I choose a firm?

Kate MacDougall, a principal at Camber Communications in Vancouver.
Kate MacDougall, a principal at Camber Communications in Vancouver.

Despite the rumor, bigger is not always better. When selecting the appropriate PR firm for representation, it comes down to passion and understanding—interestingly, key traits of any successful relationship.

“Find someone that’s really enthusiastic about what you do, that’s done their research on your brand, and that comes to the table with some ideas out of the gate,” says Camber Communications’ Kate MacDougall, a certified Level II sommelier through the International Sommelier Guild. “Work with an agency that helps you to determine your goals. What at the end of this campaign is your measure of success—specific editorial placements, sales, breaking into a new market? And if you don’t know, ask them—and get them to guarantee a spectrum of results.”

These public relations experts will help connect the dots, so to speak, adding context to products before getting it into the right hands, says Town Hall’s Leeann Froese. These teams will also take the good with the bad.

“There’s that third-party credibility. A journalist may be more candid with me, as a third party, than they would with someone from the company,” says Froese. “They may give me some really good feedback that I can then share with the client and they can learn and grow from it.”

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