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Restaurant PR: Hiring A Publicist

By Miriam Silverberg

So, Mr. Restaurateur, you just developed a new recipe for hotcakes. It's the ultimate recipe of its type and at your restaurant it's selling like, well, hotcakes. Now you can go on a well-deserved vacation, right? No! There are thousands of recipes, many by better-known chefs than you and yours is not going to continue selling without some help. But don't give up. You need a publicist.

Of the many things to be considered when hiring a publicist, the main are: How do I choose the right one for me? Do I go with a large or small firm? and, What can I expect to pay? This article will attempt to answer these questions. (First of all, in the interest of full disclosure, I am the founder and president of a small boutique publicity agency. Naturally, I have some biases but will try to be as objective as possible.)

You choose a publicist the same way you choose a friend, a lawyer or your doctor. Since you'll be working closely with this person, it had better be someone you like and feel comfortable with. As I recently told a potential client (who didn't choose me), go with your gut feeling. Also, of course, it should be someone you're pretty confident can get the job done. What is their level of expertise? Look at examples of their previous work. What are their ideas? You can call references to make sure they're who they say they are.

All things being equal, working with someone who has a great deal of experience publicizing restaurants is preferable to someone whose experience is in other fields, but there are exceptions. Prior experience in the field of restaurants is not absolutely necessary if they've done well in other fields and know what to do. In addition to restaurants, I've also publicized authors. My first author was a leading ballerina. With no previous book experience I put together associations using luxury retailers' book signings, plus newspaper, radio and television interviews. Remember, Erich Segal, the author of Love Story, was also one of the screenwriters of the Yellow Submarine. Experience in one field can travel nicely to another.

Should your publicity firm be large or small? Large firms have great numbers of media contacts. At the largest and most prestigious, someone will certainly be on a first-name basis with Barbara Walters or Anderson Cooper, which is certainly helpful. But is that really necessary and are you willing to pay for it? Just because your publicist knows Barbara Walters doesn't automatically mean she will interview you. She might not be interested in hotcakes. A publicist who doesn't know her might still get you an interview if the story is pitched properly.

The bottom line is the largest firms do have the best contacts, but small firms do, too. We have to because it's our life blood.

This brings me to another point. Whom we know is not as important as how fast we can get to know them. People in the media move around like flies in the summer because most don't get paid very well. You can have a terrific contact at a newspaper but the next week he's gone and you've got to get very friendly with his replacement. Whenever potential clients ask about my contacts, I tell them that's the wrong question. They should be asking me how fast I can make contacts. (Very fast.)

So large firms have great contacts and can get their foot in any door. But will they hurt you to help a more prestigious, better-paying client? Here is a true story. Many years ago someone hired a publicist known for his outstanding television contacts. These contacts were so good because they were also his clients! This publicist booked the new client on another client's program known for investigative reporting. Well, they did quite a job on this first poor little client and the ratings shot up. But even though the news (mud) used on the program was all true, was it ethical?

After the program aired, I was hired for damage control. My client insisted they were sacrificed for the good of the other client. I insisted no agency would be that unethical. I've always wondered which of us was right. To a small agency every client is important. We can't and don't play favorites.

Another consideration in deciding between a large and a small firm, is who will actually be in charge of your account? At the large firms you may meet the top person only once and after that you'll deal with someone who may be just out of school. This is fine if you understand it and don't expect to pick up the phone and get the chairman of the board. You should assume, of course, that someone with more experience will be supervising. At a smaller firm like mine, you get the top person every time because you are very important to us. What it really boils down to is this: do you want to be a big fish in a small pond or a small fish in a big pond?

We now come to the big question: What will it cost? Most publicists charge a monthly retainer of anywhere from $1,000 and up. The really big firms charge really big fees, upwards of $6,000 monthly whereas smaller firms charge much less. What most of us will not do is charge on a per item basis. On the face of it, you'd think the best way is per item: You pay for each placement. You'd be wrong. Actually, this is not good for many reasons. First and foremost, the media doesn't like it. If a reporter finds out (and he will) how you're paying a publicist, it makes him feel as if he can be bought. That's a feeling no one likes.

Also, consider the logistics. Do I first ask the client how much he'll pay for a placement and then find out if I can place it, or do I confirm an interview first and then what do I do if the client doesn't pay me what I think it's worth? We're professionals and most of us are very good at what we do. We should be paid accordingly each month for our time and effort.

I hope this has answered many of your questions and made your search a little easier.


Miriam Silverberg is the founder and president of Miriam Silverberg Associates, a New York City publicity firm. She has publicized many of the city's top restaurants, been interviewed extensively on the subject of publicity and is an annual panelist at Marymount Manhattan College's seminar on writing. She can be reached at silverbergm@mindspring.com.

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