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 you? 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 the answer.
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 they use; 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 issue.
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 file.
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 riverfront clambake.
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. She can be contacted via e-mail Roberta@BluePlate.com or telephone 781 453 0330