Sending press releases out to the media promoting your restaurant is smart; however, if you don’t have a crafted public relations plan, then you’re wasting your time. Any successful marketing plan must be reinforced with a well-researched public relations plan. There are plenty of ways to create a winning public relations plan that also supports your existing marketing, just as there are many opportunities to develop impactful PR without breaking your budget.

Why Public Relations

The point of public relations is to make the public think favorably about the company and its offerings, and lessen the gap between how an organization sees itself and how others outside the organization perceive it. Some of the main goals of public relations are to create, maintain, and protect the organization’s reputation; enhance its prestige; and present a favorable image. While communication is the essence of public relations, an effective public relations campaign is ultimately based on actions.  

Your PR Strategy Starts Tableside

Knowing your audience is one of the most important parts of any communications initiative. Your audience can be defined in different ways, but looking at a demographic breakdown of your customer base and their dining trends should get you started. Are kids a big part of your audience? Do teens frequent your restaurant after school or on Friday nights? Are you taking advantage of the local business community? Get to know the customers in your restaurant. Don’t be afraid to talk to them and ask what brought them in; it may lead to an idea about how to get more of the same people in the door.

Know Your Key Influencers

In addition to the demographic makeup of your customer base, you also need to know who the influencers are. Who are the beat writers, bloggers, and gossipmongers that talk to your audience on a regular basis, and what are you doing to establish an ongoing relationship with these people? Knowing your audience is just the first step. You must also consider what behavior you want to influence with each member of your target audience and develop your PR plan to achieve those goals.  

Proactive Versus Reactive as a Strategy

Restaurants are very susceptible to potential PR crises (food-borne illness, bad reviews, etc.), and having your crisis management plan in place is paramount. Who are your local media contacts? Who is charged with handling press inquiries, and have they been trained? Have you anticipated each possible crisis and developed a response and solution for the problem? Playing out the “what if” scenarios can be a great exercise to help you develop an appropriate response to the most foreseeable negative events. Generally a swift and truthful response to a crisis, even if the response is that you need more information, is the key to managing the court of public opinion. Sticking your head in the sand and hoping it goes away is not an effective strategy.  

You must consider what behavior you want to influence with each member of your target audience and develop your PR plan to achieve those goals.

Own Your 1-, 3-, and 5-Mile Radius

Proactivity is also the defining word in your public relations outreach plan. Focusing your PR strategy to your immediate draw radius is going to have the most impact on revenue by driving positive awareness. While headline-catching events with great press coverage are great for awareness, a “shaking hands and kissing babies” approach to your local-store public relations will impact sales and encourage great word-of-mouth marketing in your community.  

Schools are Rich with Opportunity

Target a grade school in your trade area for a rewards program. Pick a daypart that needs help and offer a percentage of the sales that are generated by those people dining on behalf of the school. Assign a parent to greet the diners that evening to thank them for their involvement. Incorporate the school colors into your uniforms to highlight the occasion. And don’t forget to report back the success of the program each week. While this idea has been executed with varied success, spending the face time to get buy-in from the parent organizations at the school will drive the success of this program.

Don’t Just Sponsor the Team; Become a Fan

All of us at one time or another have cut a check to sponsor a little-league baseball team or pee-wee football team. After the check was written, though, the teams probably weren’t thought about again until the coach showed up with the obligatory team photo. To really get more impact and goodwill from a team sponsorship, you need to become a fan of the team. Go to the games. Bring the snacks from time to time. Know the practice schedule and incentivize the team to come to your restaurant for dinner on those evenings. When you become a fan, they become yours and the bond you share—as well as the ensuing traffic from the team and its family—will grow well beyond the season. With a little extra effort beyond the cash investment, you will become the talk of the league.  

Build Lunch Business with Local Businesses

Building rapport with the employers in your trade area should be an important part of your PR strategy, particularly with a new store opening. Who are the biggest employers in the area? What nonprofits are they working with? Is there an opportunity to partner with them in their community outreach and create a bond that will translate into trial? When businesses share a common goal, it creates an emotional bond that ties them beyond their respective services. When they understand that their success in a specific endeavor is tied to yours, they will become another cog in your PR machine.

There are many local PR opportunities to take advantage of to help craft a positive public image for your business. As you integrate PR into your marketing strategy, remember these three things: Have a plan, know your audience, and be involved beyond writing the check.

Jim Thomas is the director of business development for Charlotte, North Carolina–based JC Thomas Marketing Communications, a full-service agency that specializes in marketing and public relations for the hospitality industry. He can be reached at
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