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How to Take The P.R. Plunge

As a colleague once told me, "Publicity plants the seed, promotion fertilizes the seed, advertising ripens the crop, and personal selling harvests the crop."

Like most restaurant owners, you likely have developed a marketing plan involving promotion, advertising, and selling. Yet you shouldn't leave out planting the all-important seed of publicity.

Publicity, or the act of capturing the interest of the public through media channels, can keep your operation on the minds of customers and industry leaders. It can create a new brand, build on past branding efforts, or boost sales. If your goal is to develop a restaurant chain or to sell your small chain to a large corporation, publicity can help you gain the attention of potential franchisees or buyers.

If you are too busy to undertake an extensive media relations program, the answer might be to hire a public relations firm that specializes in publicity. But hiring a PR agency can be uncharted territory for many executives and entrepreneurs. How do you find the right firm? As many of your colleagues probably can tell you, working with a publicist or public relations firm can be a dream come true or a nightmare.

The success of your media relations program hinges on finding an agency you trust, feel comfortable working with, and will get you results. Here how to get the best PR experience.

Be clear about how publicity works and how it differs from other marketing strategies. The messages you communicate through advertising and promotions tend to be direct and simple, in order to reach consumers quickly and effectively.

Publicity, on the other hand, is a more subtle approach. You want to gain the attention of the media, so you have to tailor your messages to their needs. The reward is that a mention in the press legitimizes your business far more than advertising. After all, in the eyes of the consumer, anyone can buy ad space, but not every business is so successful that it is newsworthy.

Stories about your restaurant or franchise operation will center on angles that make you different from your competitors, not your basic marketing messages. If you expect articles to simply praise your business or tout the ingredients in your food, you'll be sorely disappointed. Nothing turns off reporters and editors more than a hard sell. A publicist should be able to help you identify story angles that will hook the media.

With publicity, you're building public awareness and credibility, and that takes time. You might want that Wall Street Journal feature story right now, but it can be years in the making. Just because your operation is doing well doesn't mean you'll be splashed on the cover of Business Week; many entrepreneurs are doing well and have interesting stories to tell. To gain credibility nationally, you first have to build a foundation of stories locally, regionally, and in the trades.

For instance, one client of ours, a large regional pizza restaurant franchise, wanted a higher profile on a national level. We landed a Wall Street Journal feature after two years of hard work. That sounds like a long time, but in the interim, we placed powerful stories in major newspapers and in the trades, which helped the client gain experience in media relations and get comfortable with interviews. When the WSJ reporter called, the client was ready.

Realistically, you can expect local coverage within six weeks, in the trades within four to six months, and in national publications in about 16 to 32 months. Remember, PR is an investment, not a guarantee.

Interview the candidates. You have to know what you want the firm to accomplish -—and telling them that you want them "to get us some ink" isn't enough. You have to know who you want to reach, which means you must know your audience. If it's industry leaders, then ask the firm how it stories in trade publications or about its track record with national business magazines. If it's local publicity you're after, talk with the firm about its relationships with either the city's restaurant reporters or business editors. Tell them which regional publications your customers read, and gauge their reaction to see if they're comfortable working with those publications.

As a restaurateur, you may be interested in promoting either yourself or one of your chefs as a television personality. But on-air cooking is not necessarily a natural talent; it's more like singing, dancing, and selling, all at the same time while paying attention camera placement.

If you have such aspirations, ask firm if they have experience in spokesperson training. You may even want see a tape of performances they have coached. Like other kinds of publicity, becoming a celebrity chef takes time. Before you start swapping jokes and trading recipes with Katie Couric and Al Roker, you'll have to develop a reel of performances on local television programs. Find out if the agency can help you.

Let's see some proof. You'll want to see the firm's successes for past and current clients in the way of newspapers clips and printed feature articles from trade publications. Also, don't hesitate to ask to review samples of press releases, fact sheets, and other written materials. Remember to check for clear writing and creative approaches that were used to generate press coverage.

And here's a secret to be sure the firm really has those wonderful relationships with the media that it brags about. Request a list of reporters and producers the firm works with on a regular basis. Call them and ask what they think about the firm.

"Who will be working on my account?" Many larger agencies will bring in senior staff—the "big guns"—with years of impressive experience to close the business, and then turn your work over to a struggling junior associate.

An inexperienced account executive might be a real go-getter and a quick study, and you could be launching an impressive career. On the other hand, some neophytes are intimidated by making cold calls to producers, editors, and reporters. The campaign could be compromised, and you may find yourself doing your own media relations work.

Look for an agency that promises senior-level involvement at the beginning and throughout the life of your working relationship. At the very least, make sure the junior associates have a safety net, and that the firm's principals are always there to guide them if difficulties and problems arise.

Find out how many accounts your account executive is responsible for and how long he or she has been with the firm. From the response, you often can gauge how important your business will be to the agency.

Be sure the chemistry is good between you and your contact. If you're going to be irritating each other, it will be a painful experience for both. Depending upon the intensity of the publicity campaign, you may have frequent contact with the account executive, and you'll talk to him or her at least once a week.

And after you hire the firm, keep in mind the following.

It's a partnership. Working with a PR firm or publicist is not like working with other consulting firms or consultants, because you're a participant in the activities, not just an observer. You will need to be available to provide interviews to reporters that your publicist has arranged, as well as be accessible to your publicist when the media is on deadline.

It will be your responsibility to keep the process from coming to a screeching halt by giving approval press materials in a timely manner, and well within the firm's deadline for getting them distributed. Take a more active interest in the media and news organizations, and think about what will spur their interest and what's important to them. You will be able to give ideas to the PR firm, who will turn them into publicity.

How do you know they're doing a good job? The simplest way is to count the clips. Are you getting more news stories and TV appearances than you were getting before you hired the agency? Are you getting more hits on your Web site than before campaign? Are reporters and producers calling? If so, the firm is doing its job.

At this stage, you may be looking for return on your investment, but putting a dollar amount on it will be difficult. To gauge how publicity has affected your business, you can compare sales from last year, but you can judge success only if you have changed nothing else during that time. In other words, promotions, advertising, menu changes, and the like all have an effect on sales. If you've kept everything else consistent, you'll be able to track the efficacy of your publicity campaign.

Lee Esposito is the principal of Columbus-based Lee Esposito Associates, whose Publicity Coaching Boot Camp programs train executives to generate publicity on their own and communicate successfully with the media. He can be reached at (614) 421-2701 or at esposito@

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