Picking the right PR person

While some publicity and online marketing can be performed by your staff, experts show that quality PR grows the bottom line. By Meg Crawford

It’s broadly acknowledged that a social media presence these days is mandatory for most businesses, including cafes and restaurants. That’s fine for the tech-savvy and millennials, but what about the balance of owners and operators, and what about all the other public relations functions?

Is PR and social media something that’s self-manageable, or is expert guidance required? Predictably, our experts say picking the right PR person is a mix of the two.

Good PR is an expert skill

Ken Burgin, community manager of Silver Chef, comes from the angle that expert PR guidance is critical, and explains it by way of a pithy PT Barnum quote: “Without publicity a terrible thing happens: nothing”.

“Hospitality is a people industry, dealing with a topic everyone loves—food, drinking and entertainment. There are so many good stories happening on a daily basis but we lack the time and skill to get them out there,” he says.

“In my restaurant days, I used a PR person all the time, and kept them on a monthly retainer. It was someone who could keep the story moving. Their job was to hunt down stories, figure out who was interested in what, and write the story if need be.

“Realistically, restaurateurs just don’t have the time and don’t think like journalists. They’re doing great stuff, but don’t know the angle: a local paper wants a different angle to say The Age on Tuesday. It’s a craft,” says Burgin.

In-house decisions

Multi-restaurant/hotel enterprises are likely to have a part-time or full-time employee in-house dealing with functions such as updating the content of the website, social media and newsletters, but for smaller enterprises it’s preferable to outsource. “I prefer outsourcing for a number of reasons,” Burgin says. “In-house, there are too many distractions, priorities change and people leave. I prefer the objectivity of someone outside. Plus, I have more control—if it’s not working out, I can say goodbye.”

Using your own employees

Both Burgin and Sally Urquhart, founder and director of littleBIG Marketing & PR, agree that existing employees can take on some PR activities, particularly in relation to social media. Burgin also suggests that at least some photography and videography can be done in-house. However, both list some important qualifications.

Urquhart recommends first obtaining some expert guidance to ensure consistency and quality in terms of brand and messaging. Outfits such as littleBIG routinely create style guides for their clients, helping them to develop a consistent brand story, while providing clients with content, image and videography guidelines to make sure all posts suit a restaurant or cafe’s food and attitude.

Burgin also says it’s never a function that should be foisted on an employee—employee interest should always be established first. He also urges caution in relation to managing social media passwords, noting that it’s not unheard of for a disgruntled employee to engage in Facebook mischief at their employers’ expense.

In addition, Burgin and Urquhart say that responding to negative reviews or social media comments is best handled by senior management or owners, and Urquhart urges companies never to ignore negative comment. “You have to put a response out there, but only once you’ve got some good advice and you know what you want to say,” she says. “Do be apologetic for the things about which you are apologetic—for instance, if you’ve offended people who you absolutely never intended to offend.

“You have to put a response out there, but only once you’ve got some good advice and you know what you want to say.”—Sally Urquhart, founder and director, littleBIG Marketing & PR

“Be humble and apologetic, and if that’s appropriate, reinforce what you stand for, what your community loves you for, but then leave it there,” says Urquhart.

PR and the bottom line

Burgin is adamant that good PR translates to profit, provided that it’s part of a bigger strategy and features carefully targeted campaigns—for instance, promoting early-week special to full quieter times, or working on securing Christmas bookings in November rather than December, or spruiking a series of special dinners or events. “It’s a critical part of smart sales activity,” he says.

Burgin’s strong preference is that PR isn’t reactive either. “Don’t wait until sales are down,” he says.

“It will work then, but to me, the most powerful PR comes when someone is on a retainer and you’re actively involved and helping them to shape the agenda.”

In that regard, Burgin suggests a monthly catch-up to discuss what’s working and what’s coming up. Naturally though, it costs. Burgin says it’s realistic to expect a couple of thousand dollars per month for an external provider to do a good PR job. “I think it’s often cheaper than people thinking, ‘I’m not saying it’s cheap, but the value of it is extraordinary’,” he says.

PR before and during start-up

Burgin says this is a given, and urges it sooner rather than later. “You want someone involved several months before opening, for example, because there are lead times for magazines, and the week before the opening is too late,” he says.

Sally Urquhart agrees. “We’re currently working with an eatery that has just opened up but we felt it was important for them to start their socials first. They’re in a suburban location and it was a great opportunity for them to let the local community know they were coming, and what was going on with all the construction. It builds buzz.” Plus, given that delays are common, it’s a way of keeping potential customers and the community abreast of practical developments, including the opening date.

Recovering from bad press

Urquhart says that this is one of the occasions where professional advice is critical. Moreover, she recommends that business is already having a contact in their back pocket.

“It’s important to have an already existing relationship with a social media expert or agency,” she says. “If things escalate and you get a real crisis on your hands, having someone to call upon and get expert advice in the moment is incredibly useful.”

Burgin concurs: “In a time of crisis, it’s critical—for instance, if you’ve been busted for underpayment of wages or there’s been a food poisoning incident. You want your PR provider to take over the media contact and help shape the message.”

Picking the right PR person

In terms of finding a good one, Burgin suggests a combination of a Google search and asking around. He is on a number of restaurateur Facebook groups and sees people asking among their colleagues who they’re using and for recommendations. “It won’t take you long to get a short list, but you have to find out what they can do, get quotes, see what they’ve done before, ask to speak with people they’ve worked with before and see if you can afford it.”

He also suggests keeping an eye out for which establishments are in the media consistently and finding out who is responsible for their PR. “Whenever I see places that are appearing consistently in the news, and it’s not just a one-off, I know that a PR person is involved.”

This great content is produced for members of the Restaurant & Catering Association. Find out about becoming a member here.

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