PRs are perhaps the unsung heroes of the drinks industry. We delve into all things comms with The Story associate director Tarita Mullings, and talk career paths, meaningful diversity, the impact of Covid, and quite simply, a love of whisky

If you want to write a story about a drinks brand, or fact check something, or source a bottle shot, or get the details of a new launch, you need to reach out to a PR. PRs are like magicians. They are brand ambassadors, connectors, relationship builders, strategists, content creators, events planners, trend forecasters, social scientists… it’s a multifaceted role that rarely makes the headlines itself. When it does, PR can be portrayed as somehow fluffy or inconsequential. “If I was down to the last dollar of my marketing budget I’d spend it on PR,” Bill Gates once uttered. Brands rely on PRs to be their counsel and their mouthpiece. Journalists rely on PRs to get the essence of a story. And a drinks PR at the very top of her game is Tarita Mullings. 

“PR can be a great career choice,” she opens as we catch up over a cup of tea and a video link (of course. It’s March 2021). She’s relaying her journey which kicked off in tech back in 2006, before she weaved her way through more general consumer-facing roles. She eventually landed in food and drink, where “something just clicked”. She’s worked at H&K Strategies and Publicasity, and has spent the last five years at The Story, where she’s now associate director and sits on the board. Clients include Diageo (which owns Johnnie Walker, Talisker and Lagavulin, among others) and Sipsmith, along with an exciting roster of food brands and hospitality players. 

Telling whisky stories

“Being a specialist is just amazing. You feel so much more confident, untouchable even,” Mullings says. It’s manifested itself in an obsession for flavour, for provenance for creativity. And that’s a compelling combination when it comes to telling whisky stories.

“[Whisky] really is never boring,” she says. “When you think about the fact that this product, from a Scotch point of view, is just three ingredients, how do we have so many different expressions? So many different brands? There’s the ability to create something completely new from these three things, literally blows my mind every day.” 

Tarita Mullings with the team at Glenkinchie Distillery

She loves tapping into the technical aspect and sharing that knowledge too – something that then becomes infectious when shared with the journalist’s audience. “When you talk to the blenders and know the detail and how intricate their role is in understanding flavour, it’s just fantastic. I just love the creativity that you see.”

The type of employer is critical in PR, too. “As a small agency, we do have the ability to consult across brands,” Mullings says. It’s been valuable, giving her exposure to different work areas and clients. Her board responsibilities include nurturing and developing the team. Alongside food, drink, and flavour, a laser focus for her is intentionally building an environment that allows everyone to thrive. Women might make up a significant proportion of PR professionals, but how many of them are in senior roles, and how many of them are Black?

Meaningful inclusion in PR

“When I was thinking about it, the face of PR hasn’t really changed,” Mullings says, looking back over her career. Yes, while working in PR in tech there were a few more men, but it’s predominantly a sector dominated by white, middle class women. It’s a representation piece Mullings wants to challenge, in whisky and beyond. “For me it’s about uncovering the roles that exist in this space, and shining a light on them. PR can be a great career choice.”

Mullings explains that when it comes to early career decisions, what A-Levels to take, or what to study at university, Afro-Caribbean parents prefer their children to prioritise more traditional routes. “Creatives don’t really exist. Your parents are a bit like ‘what’s that?’. And it doesn’t ever seem like something that’s accessible to you.” The wealth of roles within PR just aren’t highlighted, neither are the depth of expertise you can gain, the incredible experiences you can have, or the progression opportunities within. There’s a lot of joy in a PR career, but if you’re Black, it can simply be inaccessible. And that’s where the Black Comms Network comes in, where she is head of brand and partnerships.

“It’s really about supporting people to feel included,” she explains. “How can we bring more people into these spaces?” The network started life as a WhatsApp group following the murder of George Floyd in the US last year. “We said something has got to change, and we’ve got to take control of the narrative.”

Mullings at Talisker Distillery

The network’s mission includes increasing the seniority of Black PR and comms professionals while providing development opportunities, career coaching and networking. “What we found is that people work in the industry, get to account manager level, and then drop out.” It’s a combination of bias, a lack of support, and ultimately feeling alone. “How do we make sure the environment is inclusive so people want to stay?” She describes feeling like a “unicorn”, looking round a room and realising you’re the only person who looks like you. It’s an ongoing challenge, and an urgent one. Both in whisky and PR.  

A love of the PR craft

One of the reasons Mullings is so passionate about opening up the door to opportunities in PR is fundamentally because she loves her craft. Press trips are “definitely one of the highlights”, whether that’s visiting Scotch distilleries or hosting bartender competitions in the likes of Morocco. But it runs deeper than that.

“We want to uncover the next generation of whisky drinkers, and that’s what makes me passionate about doing my job,” she enthuses. It’s about making sure everyone knows whisky is for them. “We know we need to spend time reaching new communities and finding new voices.” She adores working with influencers, and not just established whisky geeks. People who are starting on their own whisky journey have a role to play, too. 

Adapting PR to the new normal

The pandemic has affected everyone’s way of working in the last 12 months. But for PR professionals, where relationship building, events, launches and press trips are such an integral part of life, it’s forced a seismic change. But Mullings is adamant it isn’t all bad. “It’s created for us new ways to talk to consumers. We really weren’t making the most of Zoom.” It’s accelerated the importance of influencers, too. With experiential on pause, she mentions the likes of Tik-Tok. “What other new channels can we identify?” She’s energised and enthused. At this stage of the pandemic, we can all do with that perspective. 

But there is the other side, too. “We desperately want to get people out there, we desperately want to get people back into bars and restaurants,” she says, highlighting the role drinks PRs especially can play in helping the hospitality sector get back on its feet. But it comes with a caveat. “There’s also the need for sensitivity for journalists and colleagues. Not everyone is going to want to get back out there at the same pace,” she acknowledges, stressing it’s ok for people not to want to rush back to bars. She predicts a “hybrid approach” for PR events for the rest of the year. 

Executing The Singleton Experience in China with Maureen Robinson

And what does she hope for personally? “I want to go back to Scotland! I want to get back to doing what we were doing, but with a twist. Because there are learnings we can take from Covid.” 

She taps into that deeper purpose, too: “I’m excited about being the change we all want to see in the world.” There’s a challenge to others around representation, too. “I want to see that brands and businesses are addressing the lack of diversity we see in the industry and taking it seriously. And we need to address the slow progress that’s been made and turn our attention into action.”

Associate director, Black Comms Network co-founder, whisky lover, changemaker. Mullings noted earlier in our interview that “there’s lots of power in PR!”. There’s a lot of power in her, too.