Have you heard the term “free PR?” Many people think that the role of a public relations professional is to simply send out news releases on various company activities and events. Yes, a news release may get picked up by a newspaper or magazine, the resulting article would be free and would hopefully be of benefit to your restaurant. But an occasional news release is only a tiny portion of the tasks of someone in the PR role.

Whether a restaurant works with a public relations/marketing firm or handles those duties in-house, it is always important for the manager to know what to ask of a public relations professional and the types of challenges they can help with. According to Effective Public Relations (11th edition, p. 5), the definition of public relations is, “the management function that establishes and maintains mutually beneficial relationships between an organization and the publics on whom its success or failure depends.”

There are several key words in this definition. One of the most important is “publics.” What are the “publics” that a restaurant manager seeks to maintain “mutually beneficial relationships” with? The first one that probably comes to mind is customers. It is vital that good relationships are maintained with customers.

But what about employees and vendors? They’re vital too, as are investors. What about government entities, neighboring stores and other restaurants in the area? Have you considered the media as one of your publics, the entire world when you factor in social media, and the community at-large in relation to local advertising, special events and donations? 

These “publics” can be broken down into subgroups. You have local and out-of-town customers. Your vendors may be service providers (everything from pest control to accountants), food and supplies purveyors or liquor distributors. They have all have different needs and require different attention.

The term, “management function,” means that public relations is a series of planned activities, spearheaded by management. Public relations (PR) activities can be used to change how members of a group, or public, think and act. They can also be used to raise awareness. It is up to the manager to recognize the different publics that interface with the restaurant and understand when and how a PR effort could be of benefit.

Most formal PR campaigns begin with research to determine a baseline for the group’s mindset with plans developed based on research outcomes. Research usually entails a survey, focus groups or individual interviews. However, “secondary” research can also be used. This might include a study of reviews in social media or tabulation of comment card notations for customers; paying attention to attitudes, tardiness, call outs and conversations of employees; or assessing the atmosphere of the last few interactions with one or more vendors. 

It shouldn’t take long for a manager to discover a few areas where improvements can be made. Rather than taking on all tasks at once, it is best to prioritize and tackle projects on an individual basis. First, let’s focus on customers. Perhaps a restaurant sends out regular emails with links to a newsletter, often with discount coupons attached. The email list is substantial, but “research” indicates that there is not a high percentage of click-throughs, or people accessing the newsletter itself. This may have been determined by looking at the analytical information provided through the mail program, or a simple tally of the coupons that are actually brought in.

There are several strategies that can be used to increase the readership of the newsletter. A PR professional would review the emails of the last several months and make suggestions about email content and the content of the linked newsletter. Suggestions might include:

• Refer to newsletter content with catchy headlines. Use power words like “simple,” “award-winning” and “quick.”

• Use headlines that use numbers, for example, “Six Ways to Save Money when Eating Out,” or “15 Foods to Order When You’re in a Hurry.”

• Include a cooking tip or short recipe from the chef or even from one of the employees.

• Reference the coupons that are in the newsletter.

• Include stories about customers. People want to read about people. Tell stories of first dates, out-of-state guests that come back again and again or friends from around the country that include your restaurant in their annual reunion.

• Tell a story about an employee who went out of his/her way to make a customer feel honored and pampered.

Once the changes in the email and newsletter have been implemented, it is important to monitor the results. Pay close attention to the statistics available through the email and newsletter programs and keep a close count on the coupons that are turned in. Make sure employees are aware of the changes and ask them to note comments, or even ask customers if they read a specific article. Continue the program for three or more months and reassess.