News Analysis: Restaurant PR navigates the critics

Eating out is growing in popularity, and with the latest edition of Harden's restaurant guide hitting the shelves next month, Tom Williams reports on how restaurant PROs target the only ten people who matter

Restaurant PR should be a growing business. A restaurant can prosper or perish at the hands of a particularly glowing or acerbic reviewer, so professional advice would seem to be more important now than ever before.

But despite the PR community's evident enthusiasm to get in on the act, restaurant PR is a difficult game that can make or break the reputation of an eating establishment and its PRO. It is also a demanding business that targets different ends of a consumer media with vastly different agendas.

PR for those most-established restaurant brands, such as the iconic Ivy and smooth newcomer The Wolseley, is predominantly a reactive affair.

But for lesser-known establishments, the crucial time is opening night, when a restaurant has what may be its only opportunity to appear on the front pages of an earmarked publication.

'A lot of the PR hinges on the launch,' says Sauce Communications co-founder Jo Barnes. 'You have to really understand the business and what is going to appeal to the media about it.

'Apart from changing the menu and the chef there is not going to be a vast amount of stuff that will be newsworthy.'

Pre-launch preparation

Barnes, who handles PR for no-nonsense celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, says that much of the work is in the months before a restaurant opens, advising on changes to aspects of the business that might make it more prominent, such as the selection of the chef.

Barnes and other restaurant PROs use stunts such as charity events and film/theatre crew parties involving prominent celebrities. But interaction with food journalists who might write more about the restaurant itself has to be carefully calibrated depending on the publication's focus.

Time Out food and drink editor Guy Dimond is particularly keen to clarify this distinction as he bemoans the poor quality of some restaurants' PR activities.

'At some publications, relations with PROs are very cosy, whereas at guidebooks, there may be little or no contact,' says Dimond.

'But although there are perhaps 20 good restaurant PROs, there are hundreds of others who are terrible.

These people try and tell you what to write and dictate when the photographer can go into the restaurant.

'It is also very important to get the information right the first time. You would be amazed how many PROs don't manage this. We often get old menus and press packs with names misspelled or incorrect information,' he adds.

Richard Harden, co-editor of Harden's restaurant guides, says that simplicity can be the best approach, pointing out that there are, in reality, very few people who could be described as restaurant critics, and consequently few PR agencies that can be all that effective.

'There are basically no more than about ten people who matter to the restaurant scene and the best restaurant PROs will already have their ear,' says Harden.

'That doesn't mean that these critics will do what the PROs say but it does mean that they trust them enough to know that their time will not be wasted if they go along to a restaurant that these PROs recommend,' he adds.

These top ten are likely to include renowned Sunday Times critic AA Gill and the Evening Standard's influential Fay Maschler.

Brower Lewis Pelham PR account director Eliot Sandiford also says a positive review in The Guardian Guide is useful because 'Guide readers use it as a tool for going out in London'.

But ultimately, if the restaurant is not up to scratch, PROs will face the ignominy of a scathing review, personified at the beginning of this year by The Sunday Telegraph Magazine critic Matthew Norman's panning of Westminster restaurant Shepherds as 'among the very worst restaurants in Christendom'.

Norman gave Shepherds an overall rating of just 0.75 out of ten and his comments prompted the threat of legal action from the restaurant's owner Richard Shepherd. Few experienced PROs would recommend this reaction, however deeply cut the client might feel.

Respect and recovery

Barnes is honest enough to confess that she has been on the receiving end of a few negative comments in her time and admits that the only realistic course of action in such a situation is to pick up the pieces.

'There is nothing that you can do (if you get a bad review),' she says. 'You must treat the critic with respect and make sure they get the right information, or at least find out what you can learn from what they have said. But it is very rare that you get a set of bad reviews one after the other.'

A bad run at the hands of the critics is rare because of the small but highly individualistic circle they inhabit.

Just as restaurants have diversified, so have the critics who write about them, and each critic has his or her idea of the perfect breakfast, dinner or lunch.

That said, the diversity of eateries in a highly competitive market where every customer counts has made it crucial that restaurants get noticed in their infancy, whether through word of mouth or a flattering column.

Restaurants are a tempting market for PROs who can handle the hors-d'oeuvres of a restaurant launch and are prepared to do their homework.

HARDEN'S MOST-NOMINATED RESTAURANTS IN 2004

For best food

Gordon Ramsay, 68 Royal Hospital Rd, SW3

Tel: 020 7352 4441

PR: Sauce Communications

As favourite

The Ivy, 1 West Street, WC2

Tel: 020 7836 4751

For business

The Square, 6-10 Bruton Street, W1

Tel: 020 7495 7100

PR: in-house

For romance

La Poule au Pot, 231 Ebury Street, SW1

Tel: 020 7730 7763

PR: in-house

For breakfast

Giraffe, a chain of restaurants in London's up-market Hampstead,

Marylebone, Kensington and Islington areas

Harden's London Restaurants 2005 will be published in September

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