Meet the drinks journalist – nocturnal by nature, sometimes bedraggled, predictably thirsty, but often useful. Introduce yourself, tell them what you’re up to, build a relationship. They call it news, but you can call it marketing, says Hamish Smith.
How many journalists do you know? If your response starts with an “err”, probably not many. Perhaps you have a PR for such things – great if you can afford one – but if not, you need to fill the position yourself. The best thing is, dealing with journalists is free.
A bar is like any other business – the more talk, columns and hype, the more people know they exist and, largely speaking, the more successful your business. London bartenders get a lot of press, partly because they are doing interesting things but also because they are not afraid to market themselves and their bar.
Write a list of publications you’ve seen other bars and bartenders featured in and, when you're open, invite their writers down to the bar, take them for coffee, send them an email or talk to them on Facebook – whatever the means, bring them into your life. Once you have built your contacts and perhaps a few relationships, you need to get your news across.
Whether you’re sending the news out to 20 journalists or five, a press release is never a bad idea – even if the process of writing it helps you to distill your thoughts.
The best press releases get straight to the point – keep it to a side of A4 (or equivalent on an email) – avoid too many adjectives and include a headline, introductory statement, bullet points and a quote. Follow the same format a journalist would – get the five Ws as high up the page as you can (who, what, where, when and why). Just as important is to include a professional photo, large enough for print magazines and small enough to send via email (mgs not kbs).
But this is not a one-way street. Don’t think “what can they do for me”, but also “what can I do for them”. Often your interests align anyway but even if they don’t, working with a journalist to achieve their aim helps you to achieve yours – publicity.
Sometimes you might offer advice off the record. This enables journalists to write with more authority on a given subject. You don’t directly benefit through mentions but you may further the industry’s knowledge on a given subject, or further your own cause without having your name put to it. A journalist will have to make what you say stand up – often checking it out with other sources, so don’t necessarily expect your information to directly appear in print. If you prove to be reliable as a source, the journalist is more likely to come back to you to quote you on subjects with a more tangible reward.
In most cases, journalists are looking to quote you directly. Traditionally this would happen in person or over the phone, but increasingly by email. Push for a spoken conversation as this allows for nuance and gives the journalist a better understanding of the subject. Questions lead to answers and further questions, so often the resulting article is more colourful and in-depth. A physical interview is also much likelier to appear in print as a journalist has taken the time out of their day or evening to meet you – it could be a three-hour round trip – so there is a sort of unconscious pressure to see an end result. If you're offering an exclusive interview on some big news, it's always best to do things in person (outside of Covid restrictions).
The best way to guarantee what is printed is what you said is through emailed questions, but unless you are discussing the biological intricacies of fermentation, getting it across verbatim is less important than getting across character and meaning. Moreover, if you receive emailed questions, you’re likely one of many. If the request is for a feature, journalists will often spray out a few requests – when resources and time are short, journalists won’t put all their eggs in one sour. That said, most will approach an article with a mixture of steers, interviews and emailed quotes.
Social media announcements
So you have a few thousand Facebook friends and a similar following on Twitter and Instagram. Why not take your news and self-publish? Because you’re missing an opportunity. If the news is big enough, take it to the press first. An exclusive story is catnip to any self-respecting journalist as it means they can get one over on their competitors and feel like proper exponents of their craft. They are paid in traffic and PR exposure - and so are you.
If the news is about your new homebrewed limoncello, that’s fine, drop it on your social media friends. But drop it with a hook: “I think limoncello is the most misunderstood liqueur. If you make it right, it...".” Cue pics and explanation.
The guest written article
Columns and comment pieces from bartenders are a great way to get across your views and position yourself as an expert in a field. By the nature of the their jobs, the drinks magazine or website editor is normally a generalist - not a specialist. So if you spend your mornings reading historical accounts of mead production, and feel like you can sufficiently communicate your knowlege in an article, pitch an angle to your favourite editor. Not sure what the angle is? Tell the story to a friend - the starting point of your explanation is normally the angle. If their eyes glaze, you need to start somewhere else.
In most cases you won't be paid, as your work will likely need much more editing than that of a jobbing journalist. In any case, writing for money isn't going to make you rich. Freelance journalists - in the trade in particular - can only make a decent living by learning to write at speed. But, money is only one form of payment. Positioning yourself as a thought leader in the industry will only bring opportunity, plus it's something to show your mum.
Journalists are many
While times are hard, there are more journalists in the UK than you can shake a stick at – the tradition of journalism pervades just about every aspect of British society and, unsurprisingly, they come in all shapes and forms. You need to know who you are dealing with to know what they’re after.
The regional press, though receding, is a good place to start. Local interest is the key thing here, so if you’re two boys from Belfast who have just won the World’s 50 Best Bars, there’s a story there the local newspapers will be interested in (and they were). As a rule, if you’re the largest, the oldest, or anything else that might get you past the receptionist at the Guinness World Records, local journalists are interested. If there’s an animal involved, even better. Even a story about a water pipe bursting or your bar burning down can be turned into an opportunity– bad news can be just as oxygenating for a bar as good news. Whatever the news, just make sure you get it to them in good time – while it fits the definition.
Most local rags will also have reviewers who, though likely more interested in eating than drinking, could be seduced by your new menu. A growing trend is neighbourhood magazines, often edited by a resident, but full of reviews and articles about local facilities. The best thing about these magazines is that they draw attention to some of the cool businesses and people in the area and are largely funded by uncool people – estate agents.
National newspapers and consumer press
Much of the above applies for national press, but the news has to be nationally important. Tabloids may be the most read newspapers (sadly) but broadsheets are more likely to cover drinks topics as they have readers who are more receptive to new trends and experimentation, and the platform – food and drink supplements and review sections – to go into more detail. The nationals tend to be based in London, so reviews and drinks news have historically tended to be about operators in the capital. But this is changing rapidly and not before time.
Consumer magazines are more likely to think visually, and so should you – offer sharp pictures of you and your cocktails. The career bartender is still a concept in development among the general public, so you have to simplify your message. Like it or loath it, the hipster image helps the public understand that you’re not a scruffy student. Work it, and don’t be afraid of the word mixologist either – it may seem passé but it encapsulates the complexity of thought that goes into your drinks. The public enjoy hospitality but they don’t want to read about it.
Don’t feel the need to use the word mixologist with us. Here in the trade, we know that you drink a mass-market lager at the end of your shift and you boomerang rank shots back and fourth between bars. You can be yourself with us.
In a media sector which boasts Plastics & Rubber Weekly, you can imagine there are a fair few hacks attracted to drinks writing and therefore a fair few titles. For the UK market you have Class, Bar Life, Bar Magazine, Harpers Wine & Spirit, Drink Up and a few others. Don’t forget the international titles based in the UK – Drinks International, The Cocktail Lovers, The Drinks Business and The Spirits Business.
All journalists like to think they are serious members of the Fourth Estate but, luckily for the bartender, mostly they reserve the tough questions and spiky analysis for drinks brands. The bartender and the journalist, meanwhile, hold hands, skipping down the street. The reach of the trade magazine or website is often limited – deliberately so. Here the audience is the drinks industry – your potential partners, customers, suppliers and consultancy paymasters.
Long gone are the days that bloggers are seen as the saviour of journalism but nonetheless, the good ones are knowledgeable, agile (mostly one-man-bands) and can write. To generalise, and with exceptions, they tend to know their way around social media. It’s a good idea to know the reach and penetration of a blogger before indulging them in your time and/or wares.
So, don't wait to be discovered. If you don't make the first move, it might not ever happen.
This article was updated Feb 2021 and first published Spring 2017.