In food and beverage terms, the PR sector should always aspire to be a great restaurant and resist the temptation to be reduced to a simple bar
Public Relations is the ultimate restaurant. In common with cuisine: PR client experience is subjective and ephemeral (at best); all PR agencies are equipped with identical equipment and ingredients, and, just like any restaurant, a PR agency’s reputation is often assured by – and wholly dependent on – the lowest paid members of staff.
The parallels run deeper still. Restaurants are built on creating a distinct and repeatable client experiences; the latter are based on a series of detailed processes and protocols, all of which remain invisible to the client, who simply sees – and receives – coherent, seamless service. Great PR agencies should be no different; based on repeatable, distinct client experience supported by rigorous process. The resulting offering will distinct to each firm, based on the nature of their heritage, their team, their proposition; some PR firms will be data-driven, while others more creative; some will be relationship-based, others will be knowledge-centered. Successful, scalable firms’ offerings will always be based on an agreed set of steps to ensure the delivery of their particular client experience, every day.
Restaurateurs appreciate the value of detail; no one would return to an establishment where the crockery was unclean, or the tables not laid, irrespective of the quality of the cuisine. The former are integral to the experience; the celebrity chef may make the headlines, but he or she is no substitute to ‘laying the table’ every day. A friend of mine was formerly a waiter in a creperie in Grenoble, France, and explained the concept of ‘perceived value’; in a creperie this has less to do with the absolute value of the ingredients or venue, and everything to do with whether clients actually enjoyed themselves, and felt looked after. Perceived value is a crucial concept for PR firms to master; caring about our clients has as much to do with ‘laying the table’ – or in our case, proofreading documents, proactively engaging the media, proposing new ideas and insights – every day, as the big creative idea or strategic campaigns.
Restaurants convey the impression that the client is in control, when in reality the opposite is true. The maître d’hotel will determine where you sit (in certain cases, if you sit at all!), the waiter will define the dynamic of your meal – your probability of choosing the fish (‘it’s a great catch today’, ‘the veal is off’), when one course is cleared to make room for the next, when you receive the bill and, even, how much you drink (in the event that s/he is topping up glasses). At each stage, the restaurant is operating at the ‘intersection’ between the client’s objectives (nourishment, entertainment, and unforgettable experience, a quick bite) and its own (a profitable, sustainable business).
This metaphor is perfectly apt for the PR industry. In the case of most restaurants, the customer is the protagonist, the star and centre of the experience; just as with PR firms. And here lies the crucial difference with the advertising model; which – to extend the same metaphor – operates more like a licensed bar.
Food is incredibly complicated to prepare; it relies on a selection of ingredients which must be then treated in a particular way; the end result is highly subjective. The entire experience is highly dependent on a number of key individuals whose talent is hard to scale and even harder to replace. That’s public relations. Drink comes out of a bottle, the experience is easy to repeat and scale; and just like the advertising model, profit and scale are built in.
And the challenges of integration are equally acute. A restaurant that sells more alcohol than food ceases to be a restaurant; the latter’s ‘raison d’etre’ is culinary. This is the reason why clients come; alcohol is simply an accompaniment that is desired. A bar’s business model – and profit – is based around selling drink, the food – think of peanuts and salty crisps – is designed to stimulate thirst and, in turn, sales of alcohol; in this case the ‘raison d’etre’ is drink.
In financial terms, the nature of bar ownership appears far more attractive than the restaurant trade; the margins are higher, it’s easier to replicate and scale. But restaurant owners should resist the siren call of the alcohol mark up; the day clients visit for the drink as opposed to the cuisine, effectively signals its end as a credible restaurant.
PR firms should note the parallel. Earned media is hard to deliver, replicate, scale; the process is dependent on highly valuable staff whose departure can threaten its very existence; its ROI is subjective, and budgets are constantly under threat. Alcohol – or paid media – can add flavour to proceedings, but it should never become a PR firm’s raison d’etre. As I said before, PR firms should beware the siren call of paid; it a very seductive proposition.
Restaurants continue to service a unique and essential role in society; and one that won’t be replaced by the simple bar any time soon. The metaphor between the PR and the advertising industries couldn’t be more apt.