“It’s not a career I ever sat down and chose, but it’s certainly a unique and exciting one to have ended up in. Particularly as I started out as a van driver in Majestic Swindon.” Now that could be a sentence to introduce any number of people in the wine trade, who have stumbled into the career they now have in wine. But this one belongs to Jack Merrylees who heads up the PR for Majestic Wine. Which is a job title that, as he explains, covers a lot of remits, from emptying spittoons at press tastings to handling urgent calls from the national press.
How hard can it be running the PR for the UK’s biggest multiple specialist wine retailer? Well, it has its moments, says Majestic Wines’s Jack Merrylees.
A couple of months into my role as Majestic’s public relations person, someone asked me at a party “but why does wine need PR? Surely everyone who likes it, already loves it?”.
Like anyone who is fully immersed in their job, I hadn’t really stopped to think about that overarching point before. Possibly because I thought the answer was straightforward enough – “Yes, but it’s my role to tell them *which* wines they love” – and partly because there just always seems so much to do, you don’t really stop and consider the why.
Wine PR is a funny niche of a job which sounds incredibly appealing, and that’s because it is. We’re the ones behind the scenes, emptying spittoons at press tastings, dispatching samples, delving into the numbers to help make – or break – a story. It’s not a career I ever sat down and chose, but it’s certainly a unique and exciting one to have ended up in. Particularly as I started out as a van driver in Majestic Swindon.
The industry is like any other, I feel, in that it needs trends to feel fresh. These can be micro trends, like spotting an unexpected upwards sales line for Sherry in areas of East London (“Hipsters Are Now Drinking Your Nan’s Favourite Tipple!”) or macro trends, like suddenly finding your retail branches full of New Zealand Sauvignon and Prosecco.
Either way, for me wine PR is at its best when its supporting journalists, critics and retailers to put a spotlight on the way we’re drinking, and the why behind it. My favourite moment in my career was hearing one of my own press releases (the Sherry one, as it happens) parroted back to me at a dinner table by friends. Because I bloody love Sherry, and the story meant they’d bought some that day.
There’s also a thrill to be had from being the person who recommends the wines to the pros. When you see a bottle you’ve chosen make it into the column of the likes of Jamie Goode and Jancis Robinson, or you see one of your wines in the hands of Olly Smith on Saturday Kitchen, you get a real kick off it.
There’s a ripple effect for the business too, because we can share that mention out to our store colleagues straight away. They then get it open on tasting counters and into the hands of punters. All of a sudden, that one bottle you sent as a sample is on the lips of potentially thousands of people, and on the retinas of millions. (Although I still love that my parents ring me every Saturday to tell me ‘oooh I think one of yours was on the telly today! I wrote it down for you, two secs…’)
Last year at Majestic was certainly different, I don’t think anyone would be questioning the need for a PR department during such a big corporate ding-dong. It also changes your role and outlook substantially. Suddenly you’re not dealing with the fallout of getting the right bottle on the box, but instead how the messaging will impact the lives and livelihoods of over a thousand employees. You’re working on day and night, but it never feels adequate enough.
When you’re in the lap of big international business decisions, there’s only so much you can communicate. That, obviously, is the difference between the emotional/consumer side, and the corporate world – and how it has to be. For us, the confusion about the sale process will leave a lasting legacy for some time. If you Google Majestic, for instance, it still says we’re closing and rebranding. It’s now six months since we told the world we are not.
And that’s the other key point about wine PR. It, like the industry it seeks to shout about, is changing. Everyone now has access to a keyboard and a WordPress account. Anyone can be a wine critic, and you could spend every day of the week sending out bottles, running events or churning out your own online content. It’s a completely different challenge trying to engage with that new world, but also to understand where the real value is in it too.
We need it…yesterday
So you constantly need to stay fresh, to monitor social channels, to curate wine lists and write content which will be picked up by a variety of outlets – on and offline. There are plenty of different demands on your time, and understanding the pressures of others is the key. When I first started in PR, only four years ago, we still got our cuttings through the post and they’d need to be typed up and shared out, or scanned in. It’s almost unimaginable that we could work that way now. Everything is needed at pace and then to be shared instantly. If you don’t, someone else will.
Channel shift, as people get more and more of their media online, is just one of the natural consequences of a changing world. As it is with online shopping. I’ve always been incredibly proud of the world of physical retail, physical press cuttings on bottle necks and expert assurance which Majestic (and our PR) occupies.
Clearly though, for the next chapter of both we need to find ways of bringing Wine PR, and the messaging it creates, with us into the future. Hopefully then I’ll have a better answer when someone asks me why we need it in the first place.