Public Relations is often confused with advertising, but in reality there are substantial differences between the two. Advertising provides a statement, an opinion, or an image that is often created and written by the client and placed via payment to a magazine, newspaper or television station. Public Relations, on the other hand, is a means of gaining editorial coverage which ultimately reaches the consumer in an unbiased and informative way. The basic skills required for the job of publicist are consistent across industries. Whether a Public Relations firm focuses on beauty, on fashion, or on healthcare, their staff must excel in communication, relationship building, and writing skills. Restaurant PR requires all of these skills as well as a complete passion for the industry. My personal credo of “you don’t choose the restaurant industry, it chooses you” is especially true in restaurant and hospitality PR, as success in this niche business comes to those with lust for the industry, the people, and the marketplace. Restaurant PR is much more than simply placing chefs or their restaurant’s names in the media. When it is successful, it delivers the effective means in which a story, a message, or an image is delivered to the public. A PR firm specializing in the restaurant industry provides ideas on service, staff training, design, menu writing, and even the naming of the establishment. They scour reservation lists to alert clients to guests who can have an impact on the public’s perception of the dining experience, and to point out who the big talkers are. This can mean restaurant reviewers or big deals in social circles, the arts, entertainment, or business. The ultimate goal for the PR firm is to get people to come through the doors of their clients’ restaurant for the first time. Once they have accomplished that, getting these same people to return is the job of the restaurant – with good food, good service, and a nice atmosphere.
When the general public and industry professionals read about (in print), hear (on the radio) or see (on television) a restaurant, hotel, cookbook, etc., it is the result of media relations. The relationships that a restaurant publicist has with clients, the industry, the market, and the media, are everything in their business. The ability to manage these relationships with integrity, honesty, and real enthusiasm is paramount to success for their clients (and for the publicist as well). These relationships, which are created over many years, determine the trust that clients and the media have in the PR firm’s ability to consistently provide insightful, timely, appropriate, and intelligent work. This is the path to staying in business one more day.
For clients who do not have a new story to tell or who want a multi-layered approach to their public relations, marketing becomes a vitally important part of their campaign. Marketing is the direct selling of a client’s goods to their appropriate customer base, and can be done for restaurants via many internal and external methods. Direct mail; comment cards; newsletters; cross-promotions with local retailers or cultural institutions; concierge programs; postcard mailings - each of these communicates something about the restaurant and any programs or offers they are featuring with the purpose of encouraging potential customers to come into the restaurant.
A restaurant PR firm should have staff that has direct experience in, well, restaurants! This may mean a former chef, restaurant manager, caterer, and so on. Related experience such as this is invaluable to a client, both before and after their restaurant opens. Design, menu wording, service training, and food tastings play a major role in the success of a restaurant, and if your publicist has relevant experience, they should be called upon to offer their opinions, suggestions, expertise and advice.
In the restaurant industry, the publicist plays many roles, including partner, therapist, and hand holder. In addition to media relations and marketing and consulting services, a restaurant Public Relations firm can act as a liaison between industry organizations (panel appearances), literary agents (book deals), production companies (television shows), real estate brokers (restaurant spaces) and restaurateurs (jobs, partnerships, etc.). Whether or not they actually negotiate the deal, a good publicist will lead their client toward each client’s unique goals. Public Relations has secured an increasingly important role in the restaurant industry. There are very few chefs or restaurateurs who would dare to open a restaurant, especially in a big city, without the assistance of a publicist. And since Public Relations is an extremely intimate business relationship, it is imperative that each potential client approach their potential PR firm with at least a basic knowledge of what to expect. Then, it is up to the client to make clear what their expectation is and for the PR firm to continuously exhibit their strategy for how they will make their client’s expectations a reality.
In September 2002, a year after the devastating events bestowed upon this country, we announced the opening of a tiny retail shop. The owner, a virtual unknown, was so committed to his industry and city that he vowed to keep production in Manhattan and focus on selling his products to the best restaurants in the city. As part of our usual opening announcement process, we placed a piece in the three major local NYC publications: New York Magazine, The New York Times and Time Out New York. It may have been the timing. After all, it was the first anniversary of September 11th and all New Yorkers were looking for something good to focus on. It may have been his good looks. Or it may have been the quality of his product and his attention to detail, not only in production but in packaging as well. And of course, it could have been all three. What began from that first placement in New York Magazine was a whirlwind of media attention that put this client and his product in front of millions of people worldwide. The “little guy that could” benefited from the simplest of public relations strategies and has now become one of this country’s best known – and loved – producers of his particular product. This is a case of a little PR going a long way. Lesson learned: You never know when it will happen. Sometimes it just does.
In this ever changing hospitality environment, the city was rocked by the change in smoking laws that prohibited guests from smoking in bars and restaurants. Sure there were loopholes, but the time and energy it would take to find them was not necessarily worth the trouble....especially when you have chefs whose creative juices flow from their kitchen and menu to their restaurant’s front door and beyond. One favorite Upper East Side chef felt awful that his loyal following was unable to smoke in his restaurant and faced the chilly winters of New York. To alleviate any discomfort to his guests, he hired a white stretch limo, dubbed the “smoking limo”, to hang out in front of the restaurant welcoming smokers into the warmth – and elegance – within. Word spread faster than any publicist could expect and before long CNN, ABC, FOX NEWS, USA Today, The New York Times and every other major newspaper and television station picked up on the excitement. Word of the smoking limo spread as far as Thailand and Australia and stayed as close as the New York Daily News and Newsday. This is an example of a situation where some of a publicist’s best fodder can come from a chef or a restaurateur. Lesson learned: work with your client, not against them. PR is a collaborative effort where the best results come from working in tandem.
A downtown restaurant hired us one year after they opened to spark interest in their restaurant. Their original PR firm was unable to garner the attention the restaurant expected. We came on board and attempted to stir up interest. No reviews. No major features. We weren’t even able to secure a calendar announcement for a rather interesting and unique event. Two years later, the restaurant receives a coveted Diner’s Journal from the New York Times (calling it a “new” restaurant), and that same newspaper includes a calendar listing for the same event we attempted to receive coverage for years earlier. Was our timing that far off? Is the media currently hungry for information, any information? Did the media like the new PR firm better than the last PR firm? We may never know. This is an example of the mystery of Public Relations. Lesson learned: sometimes you can hire the right PR firm – one with great ideas, passion and the right connections – and still not obtain the results they expect. The moral of this story? A PR firm is hired for their best ideas, connections and efforts. In collaboration with a communicative client, the possibilities are endless.
Jennifer Baum is president of Bullfrog & Baum, a Public Relations firm located in New York City that specializes in the hospitality industry.