These days, particularly in major metropolitan areas, it can seem like just about every new or existing restaurant has a public relations team managing their press releases, media contacts and more. PR services certainly have the experience and media know-how to help a restaurant launch or revamp its image. But does your restaurant or food business really need one? Ask yourself these five questions to find out.
1. What's the size of your market?
In Chicago or Los Angeles, a restaurant opening can easily go unnoticed, so you might want a strong PR team to make sure your new spot gets attention. But if you're setting up in a town of 30,000, with only two main commercial streets, you're likely to be noticed right away. If there were only two coffee shops in town and residents walk by a third, they might be interested and just as likely to stop in as they would be if they saw a short article or promotion. Don't pay for a loud microphone you don't need.
2. What are your ambitions for your business?
Be realistic about what you're hoping to accomplish. If you've got a chef you think has Michelin-star potential, or a truly accomplished baker whose breads and pastries you believe deserve more acclaim than they've gotten, it makes sense to solicit all the media attention you can. But for every fine dining establishment attracting diners from all over the region, there are many more neighborhood restaurants with a predominantly local clientele, or cafés with small, loyal followings.
And there's nothing wrong with that! Most customers love having a place to be a "regular." In that case, you're not looking for a big media splash; you're looking primarily to win the affection of the people who walk in your door.
3. Are you a strong writer?
Be honest. Plenty of great writers don't have the business experience, food knowledge, or management skills to open a restaurant! At the same time, plenty of restaurant owners aren't the best at explaining the virtues of their business in writing. If you're able to communicate well on paper, you may not need a PR team to write press releases on your behalf. (In fact, given how well you know your own business, you may do a better job.) But if formal writing doesn't come easily to you, it may be worth seeking outside assistance. It's hard to sell anyone on the merits of your business if your writing isn't clear and direct.
4. How well do you understand your local media landscape?
If you're in a major city, can you name three publications people read for food and restaurant coverage? What about five highly trafficked blogs or websites? Is there a service in your town that lists menus online, or a town-sponsored restaurant directory? And do you think you could find the e-mail addresses of the relevant parties at each one of those?
If you answered all these questions easily, then you'll be able to take the first steps toward communicating with local media. There's still some value-add from the connections and reputation of a major public relations firm, of course; their Rolodex is likely to be a lot more extensive than yours. Still, if you know how food media functions in your area, you're likely to be able to handle a good deal of publicity yourself. If you don't know which newspapers have food sections, or what websites list restaurants like yours, you may need more outside assistance.
5. How fluent are you in social media and the Internet?
Not every restaurant or food business needs a Twitter handle, a Facebook page and a full website. But consumers today expect some kind of Internet presence. If they type your business's name into a search engine, they should be able to quickly find your address, phone number and hours—whether that's on a website, a Wordpress- or Blogger-hosted site, a Tumblr or anything else.
Are Twitter and Facebook already a part of your life? Do you understand the basics of a good website and what it takes to make one? If social media is second nature to you, you're not going to need a publicity team to create your online identity. But if you're still trying to figure out the difference between a re-tweet and a direct message, or if you don't know how to start a Facebook profile, a PR team may be able to help you out.
And always remember…
A good PR team will get customers in your door—but it can't make them have a good time. That's your job. Attracting first-time diners is important but what gives a restaurant staying power is the repeat customers. The basics of service, atmosphere and food quality are all in your court; the public relations team just extolls the virtues of what you've already accomplished.
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