Restaurant PR…does it really work?

17th May saw the latest in AIR’s series of breakfast meetings – the last one to be held at iconic London restaurant Joe Allen’s current site. The subject up for discussion on this occasion was restaurant PR – something many in the sector invest in so heavily – a vital tool for increasing customers or the emperor’s new clothes.

Another stellar panel got stuck into the debate, which AIR Co-founder and chef, Paul Merrett kicked off by suggesting the restaurateurs only do it because their competitors do, when local marketing might be more effective. Or, as Jason Sandeman-Allen, editor of The Nudge, put it – “it’s rather like a PR arms race”.

Andre Millodot of The Wetfish Café and James Lewis of Gauthier Soho both explained how they had ploughed a slightly different furrow by working hard to get customers to spread the word, whilst only using PR agencies occasionally. Ana Ochando of Iberica restaurants was also a vocal advocate of making customers our best ambassadors. Independents need to focus on local customers and build their reputation through first rate customer service and word of mouth.

Isn’t this what restaurateurs should be doing anyway? Isn’t this just common sense? And isn’t marketing (internal and external) very different from PR? Amy Williams of Samphire Communications certainly thought so. PR builds the brand of any business and a good PR company will help businesses get their story to journalists who are, let’s face it, pretty lazy! And while Lisa Southgate, of the Green Room, pointed out that, for small businesses, cashflow can be incredibly tight – particularly early on – and outsourcing PR can be difficult to justify.

Yet doing PR ourselves is time-consuming, there’s an opportunity cost, let alone we’ll never do it as well as the pros. So where does the balance lie? Surely the days of expensive retainers are over, particularly for the independents? We need to understand our target audience, we need to understand our brand, not lose our identity and we need to integrate PR agencies into our own teams – use them when we need them, insist on flexibility, set targets with them and review them regularly.

As restaurant consultant Seb Fogg put it – PR used to be “public relations” and now it’s become “press relations”. In an age of dwindling newspaper sales and an exponential increase in the reach of social media, is that really enough?

Mark Linehan

Big Flavour