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Magnotta Winery vs. Luka Rocco Magnotta: Manhunt creates branding fiasco

Noel Hulsman

By almost every conceivable standard, Magnotta Winery has made the right moves. Even when hit with a curve ball at launch —being told by the LCBO it wouldn't stock its wines — the Niagara-based business nimbly adjusted, selling its wines directly to the public.

Year after year it grew, developing an international market as well as expanding into Chile. It's now the third largest winery by sales in Ontario, the LCBO is entirely onboard and according to the company's site, it's won over 3,500 awards for its wines, including nearly 50 national and international honours last year alone.

In Ontario, the name Magnotta meant Magnotta wines.

Then body parts started showing up in the mail. A foot was sent to the Conservative Party headquarters in Ottawa, followed by the interception of a package containing a human hand -- believed to be on its way to Liberal Party headquarters. The same day, a torso was discovered, and then an animal mutilation and murder video emerged. The rest we all know.

Police around the world are searching for Luka Rocco Magnotta, alleged murder, bisexual porn actor and reported friend of Karla Holmoka -- an otherwise slow news week was swept away by the public's fascination with Magnotta.

His name is now, and will be until he's caught, a permanent fixture in headlines, on Facebook and Twitter. Of the top 10 most viewed stories on Yahoo! Canada yesterday, the top eight concerned Magnotta. Buried in almost each was surely the most exasperating piece of information for the Magnotta vinters: Luka was never a Magnotta. He changed his name from Eric Clinton Kirkman in 2006.

So what do you do if you're the Magnotta Winery and you've just watched your family name and company brand become universally and absolutely indelibly associated with a gruesome murderer?

We asked top public relations experts in Toronto and Vancouver what advice they would give to the winery. Here's what they said:

"Magnotta's biggest problem here is that the impact on the winery's brand could potentially live on for years. Every time a potential customer searches "Magnotta" online, they are going to find stories about this horrific crime at the top, and results for the winery lower down. Stories about the killing are already appearing ahead of the winery's own website in Google search results. And that will continue to be the case for years, long after people have forgotten the man's name, unless the company makes a concerted effort to develop sufficiently relevant good rich content that serves to take back the search term "Magnotta" from the case. Investing in paid search — buying ads that pop up online when you search for "Magnotta" will also help reclaim its name. It will be a slow process, given the sheer volume of stories about the case, but it can be done." — Katie Clark, VP Corporate and Public Affairs, Edelman

"Magnotta is a great family name, an entrepreneurial company, part of the community. If pressed they could say; In light of recent terrible events in the news, our heart grieves for the families impacted but we are not related. Magnotta Winery has its charity golf classic coming up.. a good company doing good things for the community. Join us and make the world a little better." — Mat Wilcox, CEO, The Wilcox Group

"Companies need to be prepared to respond to issues and tough questions. The golden rule is to be honest and transparent. This is an especially difficult situation as an allegedly violent individual shares the name of a family-run company. My recommendation is to be prepared with a tight, short statement makes clear that Magnotta family is not related to the person being sought for this tragic crime while recognizing the gravity and sadness of this situation. -- Alison George, vice president, Argyle Communications

"I would advise Magnotta Winery to immediately use all its communication channels — everything from email to social media, newswires — to issue a statement to its employees, business partners, followers and consumers, making it very clear that Luka Magnotta is in no way related to the family that operates Magnotta Winery. There's really not much else you can do in such an unfortunate circumstance. The main thing is to quickly end public speculation about a connection between the brand and this individual." — Kadi Kaljuste, senior vice president, Hill & Knowlton Strategies