ORGANIZATION CASE STUDY: DISCUS pours on the PR to protect and promote liquor

The Distilled Spirits Council excels at mixing business with pleasure, yet there's more to protecting the liquor industry than teaching reporters about alcohol. But it's a start.

The Distilled Spirits Council excels at mixing business with pleasure, yet there's more to protecting the liquor industry than teaching reporters about alcohol. But it's a start.

"You didn't drive here, did you?" It's a question you have to assume Frank Coleman asks quite a lot. Still, it's reassuring to hear it, given what's coming. Of course, only a fool would drive to this office. The business here is liquor, and if you're not a little tipsy when you leave, then you're probably doing something wrong. If you're really lucky (or if you're a reporter they want to persuade), you might even go home with a bottle of something special. That's how it is at the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, the Washington, DC-based trade association for the liquor industry. Not beer, not wine, just liquor. If you're not clear on the distinction, have a seat in the lobby. Bottles of Wild Turkey, Dewar's, Bacardi, Midori, Beefeater, Jose Cuervo - you name it - stand earnestly in the kind of wood-and-glass cabinet normally reserved for plaques and service awards. The artwork tends toward the surreal: an oversized acrylic painting of Stoli Vanil lounging in a cloud castle, an artsy collage of a Knob Creek bottle shot from various angles, a large neon lithograph of a martini glass filled with a hot-pink mystery liquid. The office itself is a monument to alcohol. So when the receptionist asks if you need anything to drink as you wait for your appointment, you can be forgiven for assuming that she doesn't mean Perrier or Poland Spring. Coleman, a former communications director for former Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R-NY), has been the head of public affairs for the past four years at DISCUS, as the council calls itself. His job is twofold: Protect the liquor industry in legislative houses across the country, and get people to drink more, responsibly. He accomplishes both in large part by getting reporters to increase their appreciation of alcohol (something he admits isn't all that hard to do). Today, Coleman is pleased with himself - and with good reason. He's just returned from a successful "Gin Tour" in the UK. More than a dozen reporters followed him and his staff overseas for five days to drink and learn about gin - all first class, all expenses paid. Now he's comforted in the knowledge that those journalists are back at work, writing lifestyle pieces for Time, Men's Journal, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal, to name a few. "They do a very nice job," says Randall Lane, a "spirits writer" for Time Out New York who accompanied Coleman on the gin tour. "It's all first class, and we definitely left knowing more about gin than we did when we went in." Not about the brand Lane stresses that he would never go on such a tour if it were sponsored by a single brand. "It would put you in a very compromised position," he says, echoing a colleague. "With DISCUS, you don't feel like you have to talk about a particular brand. You can concentrate on the gin itself," says Melissa Clark, who went to London with DISCUS on assignment for Wine Enthusiast. But today, in Coleman's office, the topic of conversation isn't gin. It's taxes (and Scotch). "About 50% of the price of any bottle of alcohol is tax," he says. "But we all know that there is a difference between the $10 bottle and the $150 bottle, and I will prove it to you at this very instance." A label tears, a cork slips out of a pricey-looking bottle with a "pop." It's a brand you can't even get in the US, and it's 25 years old. There's a pause as he holds forth the open bottle. "Why don't you just nose that a little," he whispers. The normally staid and sober reporter concedes a "wow." Coleman smiles and pours. It's not quite a foreign gin tour, but these few moments in Coleman's office are a microcosmic glimpse of how he and his small team of public affairs pros earn their paychecks. A reporter gets treated to the kind of fine liquor he's not used to, all the while hearing about the industry's legislative struggles. It's not quite bribery, and it's not quite the aspirin in the ice cream. Think of it as synergy. "We are all about blending the lifestyle and the public affairs," he says. Equal parts PR and politics The DISCUS PR strategy is simple: Place articles in respected publications about what whiskey to have with dinner, where the best vodkas are made, what drink to serve at your World Series party. Increase the perception of drinking as a responsible part of adult life in America. Then gather your clippings and ask the state legislator why it is you still can't buy liquor in his state on a Sunday. It's an approach that seems to be working. Nearly every US state proposed increased taxes on alcohol this year to make up for severe budget deficits. However, nearly all dropped those provisions, many in favor of DISCUS' preference: legalizing Sunday sales. After all, why make alcohol more expensive when you can simply sell more at the same price? Either way, tax revenues go up. Being a heavily regulated (and oft-denigrated) industry, the list of issues distillers must deal with is a long one. "The 21st Amendment repealing Prohibition gave states the right to regulate the product within their borders, so there's a huge amount of state regulation here," explains Coleman, who can rattle off archaic state restrictions like most guys recite football stats. "But we've also got, at the federal level, issues like the Federal Trade Commission, our advertising," referring to the recently lapsed, though always self-imposed, ban on liquor advertising. "We have international issues; trade issues are something we deal with a lot. Promoting industry responsibility is obviously a big concern...what do you want to try now?" As Coleman resumes pouring, he talks about DISCUS' other liquor tours for the press. A bourbon tour through Kentucky, a Scotch tour through Scotland. And most recently, DISCUS has unearthed and revived George Washington's old distillery at Mount Vernon, NJ, an effort that's been yielding a lot of press (black-tie affairs raffling off the first whiskey distilled on Washington's plantation in 200 years makes for good copy). Surprisingly, DISCUS does all this on a $1 million annual budget. As one can imagine, member companies pick up the tab for much of the tours and events. And lobbying is under a separate department. By the end of the interview, five open bottles of Scotch are on the table in Coleman's office. He asks again, "You're not getting in a car, right?" The answer is no, and yet another reporter stumbles out the door, back to the office to write about DISCUS, knowing much more about liquor on the way out than he did on the way in. ----- PR contacts SVP, public affairs and comms Frank Coleman VP, public affairs and comms Lisa Hawkins Director of communications Patrick MacElroy Director of PR, NY office Shawn Starbuck Kelley Communications manager Monica Bell Administrative assistant Heather Holmes Director of clipping services Clarence Bell

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