Leading a spirits-focused communications company sounds like a dream job, but originally journalism major Courtney Sandora chose PR over a position at Reuters for a better salary in New York. She never looked back. Today she owns and runs Go Social, a communication, social media, and PR firm focused on the spirits industry.
BW: Tell us about your position running a PR/Social Media firm – what does your day/week look like? How is that different working with spirits brands?
CS: As the owner of Go Social, there’s a lot of variety. We work with craft brands and global brands and there’s always a new release on the PR front or a content creation need when it comes to social. Both Social and PR require you to be flexible and to move quickly. We work hard to plan at least a month in advance to help our clients from having too many last-minute fire drills. That said, beverage alcohol is just a really fun industry to work in – from coming up with creative copy to creating cocktail reels and reaching out to media and influencers for samples. It makes our job much easier when you are working in a category that is entertaining.
BW: How did you decide to focus on whiskey and spirits – what’s the path that brought you here and were there any interesting detours along the way?
CS: My entree into the whiskey world was when I worked at a boutique agency for Jim Beam Brands. I had the opportunity to travel the country with Fred and Booker Noe on the Great Whiskey Debate and assisted with PR for the Small Batch Bourbon Collection. I didn’t even realize it at the time but that was just such a special unique experience. That led me to work on other spirits brands at larger agencies and eventually on the client side at Brown-Forman where I started on Woodford Reserve, Old Forester, and Early Times.
BW: What’s your background and education? Were there particular stepping stones on the way that made you pivot to spirits brands?
CS: My degree was in journalism from Indiana University and I moved directly to New York City to find a job. The PR agency was paying $5K more than the interview at Reuters and with how expensive New York was that honestly put me on the path of PR. My first clients at the PR agency were in the fields of Telecom and Banking. When I finally had the opportunity to work on food and beverage I never looked back. Prior to working with Jim Beam Brands, I really had never drunk whiskey. Fred and Booker would lead us through the tastings and I learned how to appreciate whiskey. By the time I moved from Chicago to Louisville, Kentucky to work for Brown-Forman I was already a whiskey fan.
BW: What kind of support have you had from family, colleagues, and mentors? How are you paying that forward to others in the industry?
CS: I started my company in 2010 and I’ve had so much support from people I’ve worked with – whether that be mentorship or introductions to new clients. Almost 90 percent of all the clients I have today are referrals or connections from past industry relationships. I still talk frequently with my old boss from Brown-Forman who has since retired and bounce ideas off of him and those relationships I built during my time at Brown-Forman really have paved the way to my success today. I try very hard to pay it forward whenever I can and rarely ever say no to an opportunity to share what I have learned. I’ve taped social media, influencer, and PR classes for Bellarmine and U of L. I’ve also done speeches for chambers of commerce and the Small Business Administration and anytime a student wants to connect I try to share my experience with them.
If I’ve learned anything about business and, especially the spirits industry, those personal connections are invaluable.
BW: Can you tell us one or two engaging/fun observations you’ve made in your time working with spirits PR that would surprise someone from outside the industry?
CS: Spirits reporters get a lot of free booze. I’ve had people in the past ask me not to send a full bottle because they are already overwhelmed at their house.
BW: What’s one thing you wish people understood more about the role of PR, marketing, and social media management for spirits – and what you spend your time on day to day?
CS: On the social media side it is fast-paced and trends are always changing. The emergence of TikTok has really shaken up the industry and we’ve shifted a majority of our content to video over the last few months across platforms. It can take a longer time to make a reel versus a photo which clients don’t always realize.
On the PR side, reporters are often overwhelmed and under pressure to produce click-worthy headlines, especially as newsrooms shrink. A bulk of the whiskey writers we pitch today are freelancers. Everyone is focused on their own story, understandably, but what clients don’t realize is these reporters are probably getting a hundred pitches a day so there’s a lot of clutter to break through and it takes a lot of follow-ups.
BW: What advice do you have for women looking to step into the spirits world, or women wanting to get specifically into spirits PR and social media? What’s the path like getting here?
CS: Communications as a whole seems to skew female when I think back to my classes at IU and my teams at the PR agencies, but I think the spirits industry today is a lot more female-friendly than even when I started in 2002. I remember being the only woman in the room in several meetings and at events like WhiskeyFest, but thanks to great groups like Bourbon Women I see women at whiskey events all the time now. My advice would be to just be yourself, work hard, and don’t be intimidated by the category. Whiskey is like one big family and almost everyone is warm and welcoming. In addition to Bourbon Women, I’ve found attending events like ADI or ACSA are great ways to be educated on the industry. I love their seminars and you can make good connections at the tradeshows.
BW: Tell me about your perfect whiskey weekend in Colorado? Where do you go, what do you do, who are you with, and most importantly, what are you drinking?
CS: Colorado actually has a booming craft whiskey scene, so this is a hard one. I would say start at the School House – Kitchen & Libations in Arvada. It has a tremendous whiskey collection and is decorated with repurposed items from old schoolhouses. The tables are made from old gym floors and the bar from No. 2 pencils. I would move down the street to Bluegrass Tavern. It’s owned by a couple from Louisville, Kentucky, and the pizza is as good as their whiskey collection. We bought a Woodford Reserve barrel pick last time we dined in. I’d make a trip to Colorado Springs to see 291 Colorado Distillery. The mountains in Colorado Springs are stunning and 291 finishes their whiskey with toasted Aspen staves – a unique touch. I love “M” Whiskey from 291, which is finished in maple syrup barrels. I’d also check out the three-chamber still at Leopold Brothers. I had a chance to tour their distillery with the local Bourbon Women chapter and loved their three-chamber whiskey. Finally, I’d end the evening at Death + Co. in downtown Denver. They have some of the most creative cocktails around.