Steve Conlin, co-owner of Ogden’s Own Distillery, spoke to WSU PRSSA students about his product, Five Wives Vodka, and how to get something positive out of public relations conflicts.
The Public Relations Student Society of America is the largest student public relations organization in the world, and the students at WSU were excited to learn more tricks of the trade from an established professional.
When Conlin named his product Five Wives Vodka, he knew that he might encounter some conflict. However, he expected it from his home state, not from one of the neighboring states.
When applying to get his product stocked on Idaho shelves, where the state has control over liquor, Conlin received a letter from Elite Spirits Distribution that said, “We feel the Five Wives Vodka concept is offensive to a prominent segment of our population and will not be carried.”
Conlin was surprised by the response.
“To be honest, I had expected us to have trouble in Utah,” Conlin said. “I was prepared if that happened, but I didn’t expect it from Idaho.”
Conlin knew that this unfortunate turn of events was a significant public relations opportunity that they needed to quickly act on.
“When I got this, I jumped for joy,” Conlin said. “Nowhere does it say our product is banned, but by denying a customer asking for the product, they were in effect banning our product. I no longer had any avenue to sell my product. They may have been right in that we were offending people, but there’s nothing illegal about offending people.”
Conlin also put into perspective the power of the Internet and how quickly information can travel. He released the letter and information on a Tuesday around 9 a.m., and by 2 p.m., the story was on the Huffington Post and the Associated Press, and he was doing TV interviews about the issue on 25th Street.
“It all starts to blur together after a while,” Conlin said. “You start getting calls from NPR, Huffington Post, the Tribune in Salt Lake. This was kind of a unique situation in that it melded so many things. A lot of people found it humorous. It had religious issues, it had alcohol and people who don’t like seeing states take control.”
After seizing an opportunity to hire well-known constitutional law expert Jonathan Turley as their attorney, they received another statement from Idaho saying that they were no longer concerned with the issue and would allow Five Wives Vodka to be stocked on the liquor store shelves.
“It keeps living on,” Conlin said. “It’s been about two and a half years since this happened. The true thing that comes out of this is we got incredible exposure. At one point, we had 808 million web impressions.”
When asked if he would have done anything differently in hindsight, Conlin said no. However, he did leave the PRSSA students with a bit of advice.
“You have to make nice with people,” Conlin said. “At the end of any battle, you have to mend fences. Always go back, shake hands and try to work together in the future.”
After ending his lecture, Conlin posed for pictures with the students and answered any additional questions they had.
“I loved hearing what Mr. Steve Conlin had to say,” said PR and advertising major Jamie Hamilton. “As a future public relations professional, I really enjoyed hearing how he positively positioned Five Wives Vodka after what could have been a very negative situation if handled in the wrong way.”
Hamilton added that it is inspirational to see how much Conlin loves his job.
“He is living what so many of us are dreaming of,” she said, “to do what we love and get paid for it.”