Whether we realize it or not, we
are all publicists. We represent and promote ourselves and our businesses
every time we interact with other people. The image we project is our
brand, and our brand dictates how customers feel about our products and
services. In any industry, but particularly in the restaurant/hospitality
market, a powerful brand is the key to long-term success—especially in
a highly competitive market. Public relations is not just for large organizations.
In the long run it's far less costly and often more effective than print
or broadcast advertising. A publicist can help build and/or cement a brand,
but the operator must sustain it. Today, the steak is just as important
as the sizzle.
Public relations is often harder than it looks. It is
a full-time job to promote a business, develop and run events and garner
coverage. Only try this in-house if you have the right staff with the
right contacts who can manage the effort while you run your day-to-day
business. Otherwise, the following should help you navigate the public
relations' selection process.
How do you know if hiring a publicist is right for
In reality every situation, like every restaurant, is
different. Public relations combined with marketing and advertising should
be an integral, ongoing part of a restaurant's business strategy. If you're
looking for a few quick placements, take out an ad, a publicist is not
Typically companies engage a publicist to expand their
audience and fatten the bottom line. Other reasons range from launching
a new facility; renewing interest for an existing establishment; promoting
a renovation;, hyping a new chef; unveiling revamped menus; promoting
the owner, attracting and sustaining employees, appealing to investors
and even generating industry buzz before a business is sold.
The first time
Taking the plunge and opening a restaurant is scary enough.
Hiring a publicist should not add more stress. It should make your life
easier. Depending upon how much of a role the publicist will play, dictates
when they go on your payroll. For instance, in addition to providing public
relations and marketing services, my agency also develops concepts, creates
recipes, offers media training, conducts openings and acts as in information
resource for architects, contractors, etc. We have started working on
some projects a year before they open. However, the general rule of thumb
for a new restaurant seeking straight public relations is to bring someone
on three months prior to opening.
Location, location location
A good publicist does not need to work in your town. We
have had clients from coast to coast. Your publicist could be in Maine
and your restaurant in Alaska. They could work alone or for a big agency.
When you hire a publicist, you're paying for the person's ability to understand
and project your image and their contacts as well as someone who fits
your budget. Choose someone who has been successful with your colleagues
or has had results in a situation similar to yours
Exactly what can a hired gun do for you?
A publicist provides expertise and keeps your information
fresh and top of mind. Good ones can present ideas, take those thoughts
and parlay them into well-placed coverage that will enhance your operation.
Publicists are information brokers and act as your link to the media as
well as the public. The pros understand your business and have good relationships
with the press. In the event of a crisis, a publicist can advise the owners
and make sure a trained spokesperson interacts with the media.
How do you choose the right fit?
First, decide what you can afford. A sole practitioner
will be less costly than an agency. On the flip side an agency will be
more expensive but often works as a team that can address issues more
efficiently than a publicist working solo.
Ask fellow restaurateurs who are always in the news who
Select someone who is not working for your direct competition;
Select a publicist with proven experience in the industry;
If writing recipes for publication is not your forte, pick a publicist
who knows how to do it and can spot something that seems odd—too large
a quantity, missing ingredient, baking time left off, etc.
Be realistic when outlining your goals;
Choose a publicist that understands your point of view;
Make sure a campaign will be tailored to your needs;
Like any relationship, chemistry is important. Hire a person or an agency
with an approach that makes you feel comfortable. One good way to accomplish
this is to ask the prospective agency how they would tackle a specific
Ingredients for success
The best way to make a splash is to be different. Start with a well-written
press kit with easy to access information. Make your information stand
out by using a colored rather than a white folder. White disappears in
a sea of papers on a journalist's desk—a fate as unpleasant as the circular
Food shots and restaurant shots enhance a press kit but do more for
the national press than the local outlets who can easily visit your restaurant.
If money is tight, skip the photos initially.
Be flexible. Opportunities for interviews and/or photo opportunities
often come with very little notice. Deliver what you promise. If a release
touts a certain dish, make sure it's on the menu. Above all never ever
lie to the public or the press.
Who Does What
The publicist creates the strategic public relations/marketing plan. The
chef approves and modifies the plan of action according to what works
best for the operation.
The chef, owner or whoever the point of contact is at the restaurant needs
to relay information to the publicist as soon as it becomes available
(new hire, new menu, idea for an event, cross marketing situation, etc.).
The publicist is the go between for the chef and the media. Generally
interviews, recipe requests, photo opportunities and other media needs
are funneled through the publicist. Some deadlines are long, some are
tight. Chefs are notorious for doing things at the last minute. Publicists
know what lead times are in the venues they are trying to obtain coverage.
They try to deliver material with as much lead time as possible so when
a publicist requests a recipe or a holiday menu, that usually means now
not in two weeks. Try to respond promptly. It will pay off in the end.
How much does it cost?
Rates vary depending upon both the publicist location and that of the
restaurant (rural vs. city); size of agency; level of expertise; amount
of time per month dedicated to your restaurant, etc. Expect to spend anywhere
from $2,000 to $10,000 per month plus expenses. It is not unusual to pay
an upfront retainer of one to two months upon executing a contract. Food
and/or restaurant shots, will incur additional charges. To avoid any surprises,
ask specific questions about "extras" before signing on the dotted line.
In order for a campaign to generate results, a minimum commitment of six
months to a year is normally required. Everyone wants a marriage made
in heaven, but in case a separation is necessary, make sure the contract
has a cancellation clause.
Is it Worth Your Investment?
Public relations is sometimes hard
to evaluate. Plenty of behind the scenes work goes into a campaign before
anyone hears about it. Publicists spend countless hours planning strategies,
developing events, writing copy, and pitching. Rest assured, your publicist
wants you to be a success. Be patient and realistic. The media is finicky
(I know, I used to be a member of that group.). Not every idea or story
your publicist suggests is going to hit a home run.
Favorable reviews are sure to spike business as are interesting
events. The events, personalities and promotions you can create and own
are the most exciting. Some ongoing promotions with guaranteed coverage
my agency has invented include: an annual Bastille Day celebration for
a French restaurant; a Sephardic seder for a family style Italian restaurant;
sous chef for a day for a four star hotel dining room; the Muffin Man
who can be seen all over the city delivering muffins to offices and a
It's a slow and steady climb to reach the top and stay
there, but it only takes an instant to tumble to the bottom. A good publicist
can point out potential problems, avoid pitfalls along the way and expose
you to a whole new world filled with tasty opportunities.
Roberta Dehman Hershon, a former chef and food journalist,
is the owner of Blue Plate Communications, Inc., a 12 year old Needham,
Massachusetts public relations and marketing firm specializing in restaurants
and the hospitality industry.