Swirls: Caught in the act – a wine marketer pushes the limits of integrity

How would you like to buy your way onto this blog? If not for outright cash, perhaps for a nice little gift of your choice, or even store credit? I’m kidding, of course, but there are those out there in the wine business who think not only that this is possible, but that it is standard practice for bloggers, who, as I have said before, are considered soft targets – the low-hanging fruit of wine journalism – by many in wine marketing and PR.

What got me thinking about this again was an email I received a week or so ago. “Hello Edward!” it began. “My name is Laina, and I’m currently doing the online marketing for Vintage Cellars, the email2 custom wine cellar and wine storage specialists with a large online presence.” This was followed by some terms of endearment: “First of all, I want to compliment you on your blog! Your content is incredibly knowledgeable and interesting, especially when it comes to everything wine.” Thanks, I thought to myself, although wine-related content, as anyone who reads my site knows, is really the only thing on it.

Laina continued: “We at Vintage Cellars would love if you would be willing to help spread the word about how useful and wonderful Vintage Cellars is.” Subtle, I thought, though at this point I was basically still okay with what I was reading. But then  Laina got specific: “You could do this by allowing me to write a guest blog on your site (so you wouldn’t even have to write it, unless you would prefer it that way).” Hmm. Let’s see. The last time I checked, every item that has ever appeared on this blog was written, uh, by me! Yeah, I kind of do like to write my own content.

Laina even proposed some specific topics that she (or I) could write about: “It could be a review of VintageCellars.com as a whole, or about a specific product available at Vintage Cellars with a link to it.” (Mustn’t forget that all-important link.) “Vintage Cellars is especially proud of their custom cellars section and wine cabinets.”

And what would be in it for me? Laina had the answer to that question, too. “As a thank you,” she said, “we will give you your choice of Riedel wine glasses, Riedel decanter, Mulholland All Leather Sommelier Corkscrew and Leather Case, Mulholland Flourish Fairway Clutch Bag, or Mulholland All Leather Golf Ball and Tee Holder. If you prefer Vintage Cellars store credit, that is also a possibility.”

And there it was, Laina’s pitch on behalf of her company, the latest example of questionable marketing practices I have received or noticed in recent months. In this new era of blogging, Tweeting and other forms of democratic journalism, many more people have been given a public voice, with standards and levels of objectivity left entirely up to them. This has provided an enormous new opening and even, as Laina’s email so clearly demonstrates, a sense of entitlement, to some of those trying to promote their products, causes or agendas, in wine and  elsewhere. Among other things, I wondered if Laina sent the same pitch to the wine columnists of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal or the San Francisco Chronicle, or whether she would have sent it to me when I was writing my column for  MSNBC.com, all news organizations with clearly defined policies on these matters. I think not.

When I showed a copy of this email to a friend who is a PR veteran and who ran her own highly successful agency, she shook her head and said that this was the kind of thing that gave the business a bad name. It also made me wonder whether they even bother with issues like this  in marketing classes these days? To be fair, most wine marketing and PR professionals understand the problem with this approach and wouldn’t dream of it. I would like to think that most bloggers understand it as well,  but I’m not sure. Would Laina have made this pitch to me (and, presumably, others) if there weren’t some precedent for it? Probably not.

It is largely up to journalists and others who project an authoritative voice when writing about wine to police themselves to maintain basic standards of objectivity, including issues of disclosure and conflict -- standards that are fundamental to all of journalism. As a seemingly routine email from an online marketing manager shows, it may be time to redouble our efforts in this regard.

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