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Where There’s Smoke—or Coronavirus: The Role of a Communications Manager

Jan 19, 2021 | Business, Marketing

Chris Cook is a founding member of Majoring In, with MajoringInWine.com and MajoringInBeer.com, and specializes in wine marketing. Her other websites include Capiche.us and Capiche.wine. You can reach her at chris@capiche.wine.

These days, one of the most interesting—albeit demanding—jobs at a winery is that of the Communications Manager. And while this position encompasses numerous responsibilities including social media and brand management, public relations is also key and comes to the forefront in times of turmoil. Your job is to get out ahead of rumors, assumptions and other misleading and damaging information so you may ensure that your winery’s message is controlled—by YOU.

Fires. Smoke. Accidents. Scandals. Deaths. Lawsuits. Layoffs. Pandemics. All of these events—and others you’ve never imagined—can impact a winery. To best survive these crises, a Communications Manager must ensure that their winery has an up-to-date crisis communication plan.

Here’s a Real-World Example

With the coronavirus wreaking havoc on the hospitality industry, I’ve been getting email blasts from wineries far and wide—with varying messaging. A message of reassurance from an Oregon winery: “We fully understand concerns about traveling and being in public areas during the Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, and we want to assure our guests …”

On the other side of the country, the Long Island Wine Council via a statement back in March read, “Individual wineries are limiting large groups, rescheduling events or closing until further notice. Long Island Wine Country is reaching out to member wineries to exchange knowledge and keep one another up to date with any new developments so that we can do our part to be proactive and responsibly attempt to mitigate the impact of coronavirus to our industry.”

Some wineries have been surprisingly silent, making their guests search through their website and social media channels to understand if and how they are in operation. (And don’t get me started on those who haven’t updated anything, in essence providing incorrect information.)

Why Have a Crisis Communication Plan

Having a communications plan is like having auto insurance, says Michael Turney, professor emeritus of communication at Northern Kentucky University (with a robust communication strategy related to the virus and its implications to the campus community). “Most of us purchase automobile accident insurance even though we’re statistically more likely to not have an accident than to have one,” Turney states. “So, buying insurance is also a way of planning for something that may not happen, and most auto insurance policies sit in drawers gathering dust. Despite this, clear-thinking drivers do not forego car insurance, and knowledgeable communicators do not try to get by without a crisis communication plan.”

The time to create your plan is before you need it. However, necessity is often the mother of invention. If you are interested in becoming a Communication Manager for a winery, tuck this away for when you need it. In the outline below, I lay out the steps to create a viable communication plan.

Key Steps to Create a Crisis Communication Plan

1) Identify critical stakeholders, such as:
  • employees and their families
  • stockholders
  • club members
  • customers
  • suppliers
  • media
  • general public
2) Define tasks:
  • Who makes the big decisions and directs operations?
  • Who will communicate with investors, especially if the situation results in financial uncertainty?
  • Who keeps employees—and possibly their families—updated?
  • Who is the spokesperson that will publicly announce new developments, articulate the winery’s positions, and handle media interviews?
  • Who will assist with arranging interviews and distributing background information to the media? How might this person help with fact-checking to support the spokesperson?
  • Who will monitor phone calls, emails, and social media posts to appropriately route crisis-related messages and responses?
  • Who will keep information fresh on social media channels, phone messages and your website?
3) Create a crisis communication team roster that identifies specific people responsible for each task, along with their back-up person.
  • Be sure contact information (cell phone, email, home address, emergency contact) for each person is current. If the organization is large, include current job titles and departments.
4) Share the plan with all employees and update it with every change in personnel.
  • Elicit thoughts and ideas from your team—you never know what insights they may bring. This also creates more ownership and buy-in when you need it most.
5) Create (or gather) boilerplate information about the winery that can be customized and made available to the media. Examples include:
  • Operating schedule
  • Facilities
  • Winery history
  • Team bios
  • Product information

As Communication Manager, you can help to ensure that whatever the crisis, your winery will be looked upon favorably for its clear, direct and easy-to-find information. It’s an important and rewarding role that you may want to consider if you love the wine industry and you are a top-notch communicator.

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