The wages of spin

Time to schmooze: PR specialist Jennifer Baum says public relations can be “the effective means by which a story, message or image is delivered to the public.”

Time to schmooze: PR specialist Jennifer Baum says public relations can be “the effective means by which a story, message or image is delivered to the public.”

To attract media coverage, slick PR agencies offer extensive packages that range from menu writing to gala launches. But what works? And what’s value for money? By Andrew Mckenzie

The sleazy PR agent Sidney Falco, immortalised by Tony Curtis in the 1957 movie, Sweet Smell of Success, is thrown out of a Manhattan restaurant by the owner because he’s always promising publicity in return for free food, but never delivers. The film depicts a bleak and common view of public relations in which the agent sits between the client and the media in a slippery dance, making dubious claims to both.

However, in an industry where media mentions of a restaurant might be the difference between success or failure, the lure of “free media” offered by PR agents is strong.

There is little doubt that it is also an important ingredient for many successful restaurateurs who swear by the success of their PR agency relationship. But what is the role of PR in the restaurant industry? What do public relations agents offer for their money and do you need them?

Have a look online and you’ll find a bewildering array of advice on the field of PR. Most agencies claim a point of difference that can range from special relationships to special “tools,” and many claim they alone in the industry are different to their slightly questionable competition. Some “PR professionals” claim a specialty in media relations—schmoozing journalists—while others claim their services include everything from design to advertising. A small niche group claim a specialty in restaurants and food.

According to US restaurant PR specialist Jennifer Baum, writing for New York Restaurant Insider on “What Restaurant PR Brings To the Table,” PR can be “the effective means by which a story, message or image is delivered to the public.”

Achieving this might include everything from media relations and marketing to ideas on service, staff training, design, menu writing or even naming an establishment.

In Australia, the PR industry around restaurants is far more focussed on media relations, with a sharper division between those offering marketing services and public relations.

Rea Francis of RFMedia in Sydney, whose clients include Catalina, Liquidity and the Australian International Hospitality Group, says there are few restaurant marketers with a defined PR specialist in-house and vice versa.

“Publicists in food media who are worthwhile have longstanding direct collegial relationships with senior media in lifestyle, hospitality and cuisine,” she says. “You are paying for those contacts and for the publicist’s ability to read a specialist media market for you.”

Other Australian agencies, such as Convy Media Relations, even shun the term ‘PR’, choosing to focus on media relations to the extent of claiming to only employ journalists, rather than PR consultants.

Principal Louise Convy says PR covers services ranging from sponsorship to event management, but offering these would detract from her agency’s exclusive focus on publicity. Therefore it provides only media relations and employs only journalists, who she says are the only ones capable of “putting a story together.”

“Securing media coverage is a specialist skill and requires 100 per cent dedication,” she says. “Typically a PR company will dedicate up to 30 per cent to media relations. That’s all we do, nothing else.”

This couldn’t contrast more with the US, where New York Restaurant Insider advises restaurants seeking a PR agency to look for one that includes staff members who have worked in the restaurant industry for a minimum of six months.

Deirdre O’Loghlin has worked in PR for over 20 years, and although she, too, specialises in media relations, she believes that other forms of marketing—particularly events—should be part of what a PR agent offers.

O’Loghlin came into the PR industry via advertising and started out working with food and wine legend Len Evans. “I used to ghost write a lot of his columns in The Australian, and prior to that my background was as an advertising copywriter,” she says.  “There are many things that you get from a PR specialist, including relationships, an understanding of what the media needs to create a story and writing skills. Events are also a very effective way to market restaurants.”

O’Loghlin’s clients include the Bambini Trust Café and Bambini Wine Room & Bar in Sydney, and she says the high profile launch of Bambini Wine Room is a good example of what a launch event can achieve.

It not only attracted media coverage ranging from reviews in The Sydney Morning Herald to social pages coverage in magazines, but it also introduced A-list clientele to the restaurant.

Owner of Bambini, Michael Potts, says the invitation list to that event was the key to its success and was the biggest contribution made by O’Loghlin. “It was a spectacular guest list with the right mix of journalists and celebrities for them to write about and photograph,” he says. “The event made the Wine Room an overnight success and had a fantastic spin-off effect on the restaurant, too.”

Potts has worked in the restaurant industry for over 30 years. He says using a PR agent opened his eyes to the possibilities of publicity even though his restaurants had been in the media before.

“Prior to taking on a PR agent, we did have several stories where journalists simply came to us,” he says. “Some restaurateurs are good at doing their own PR, but it’s a different skill set, and I think it’s the exception rather than the rule. In addition to knowing the media, [a PR agent] can find the newsworthy elements of your CV and package it in the right way.”

O’Loghlin says it is possible for a restaurateur to do their own PR, but success is often harder to achieve and it can be time-consuming.

For example, without the journalist relationships that PR agents work so hard to foster, it might require 10 or 20 story “pitches” for success, and each one will need specific timing and an angle adapted for a specific publication or media.

“You might be able to do it without personally knowing the journalists, but it’s going to be a whole lot harder and a whole lot more time-consuming,” she says.

“PR is, in general, far more time-consuming than many restaurateurs realise, and they are usually better off focusing on creating a quality experience for customers,” adds O’Loghlin.

The extent to which PR agents go to woo journalists is often a hidden aspect of their value. A substantial amount of the interaction between journalists and PR agents in NSW—hacks and flacks in the parlance—occurs through the Food Media Club Australia. It runs the annual Vittoria Australian Food Media Awards, where journalists line up for their pat-on-the-back, and PR agents prepare their next restaurant pitch.

None of this comes cheaply, however, and hiring a PR agency can be an expensive business. Many agencies charge an hourly rate that would make a lawyer blush, and success is rarely guaranteed.

According to Rae Francis, direct fees may only be the beginning of the investment in PR, and she says that additional costs, such as photography, online design, events and complimentary meals, should also be factored in.

“For a campaign to be effective, a publicist needs a minimum of six months, and if possible, be brought in while your restaurant is at hard-hat stage,” she says.

“No-one can provide results without an excellent brief, and the publicist should report only to the principal, but working directly with all the other members of the team.”

Francis says the standard ratio of worth for a story placed by a PR agent is a multiple of three times the cost of the equivalent space in advertising. This is based on the premise that the third-party endorsement of a journalist increases the prominence, longevity and credibility of its message as opposed to advertising.

However, placement and content are in the hands of a journalist and an editor, and the message is rarely unambiguously positive. Many a restaurateur has wooed a journalist only to receive a negative review.

Valuing PR is rapidly becoming an academic discipline in its own right, with some agencies offering complicated computer programs to assess the mix of positive and negative messages in media.

For example, according to a paper published by the Institute for Public Relations’ Commission on PR Measurement & Evaluation, the Internet means that every business relationship can be tracked and valued. It suggests that this is a realistic way for agencies to prove their worth.

Potts says in addition to public relations, he employs a marketing agency and is vigilant in maintaining an online database of loyal customers, but he sees this as separate to PR. “Great publicity has a fantastic effect on your business,” he says. “In the 10 years of Bambini Trust, it’s probably the best impact on our business of anything. It’s very hard to put a value on it.”

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