Morton's sees comms as recipe for success

The nationwide, high-end eatery keeps a local message to appeal to its customers, employees

With 81 locations in North America and 43 PR agencies nationwide at its service, Morton's The Steakhouse has a lot on its plate. But the PR strategy for the restaurant chain – founded in Chicago in 1978 – is to bring those agencies together often, inform them of new initiatives, and share best practices.

“We are a worldwide restaurant company, but we want to feel like everybody's local steakhouse,” says Roger Drake, chief communications officer for Morton's. The company does that through consistent media coverage, strong local charitable partners, working with PR firms on business development, and brainstorming with agencies across the country.

“As a company, we are very committed to PR,” Drake says. “We don't do very much advertising, so our awareness is through promotions and events that we do at the restaurants, as well as the PR that promotes all that.”

Each year, the internal communications team develops what it calls the “big idea,” which will be the focus of PR and outreach for all of its locations nationally. In 2009, the campaign rests upon a new Morton's The Cookbook to be released in May. It will include a book tour, book signings, and cocktail receptions at locations nationwide.

The company provides information about the big idea, and other promotions – like its special Steak & Seafood Dinner for Two for $99 – to its various PR agencies through its Intranet-hosted PR resource center.

“As an agency, it helps us out tremendously,” says Frank Marino, president of The Marino Organization, the AOR for four locations in the New York metropolitan area, including a new location in Brooklyn, NY. “In terms of having accessibility on the Intranet, everything is available to us there: best practices and other information.”

“Although they are representing their specific markets, it's still the same brand, so we also look at our network as an opportunity to utilize and share best practices,” says Catherine Merritt, PR coordinator for Morton's. “It certainly requires a lot of organization, and being able to have a lot of plates spinning.”

In addition to the Intranet and updates via quarterly conference calls, the company hosts a PR conference every other year. At these gatherings, representatives from agencies convene to learn more about the company, share success stories, and think of creative ideas for the future.

“Roger has been at this for many years and he has it down to a science in terms of what he requires from the various agencies he oversees,” says Allyson Rener, president of Murphy O'Brien, a Santa Monica, CA-based PR agency that oversees national and corporate PR for the brand, and represents 10 California locations.

“[The conferences] are very dynamic and exciting,” she adds. “It's a terrific opportunity for agencies across the country to gather in a positive setting and brainstorm, share ideas, and learn what's next for Morton's.”

Agencies are encouraged to share their successes of the past years – including any programs involving charitable organizations, as each Morton's location partners with a local charity to become more involved with the community.

In 2008, Morton's raised $374,000 for the Make-A-Wish Foundation as part of its “30 Wishes for 30 Years” campaign. Locations across the country pitched in as the company celebrated its 30th anniversary.

Merritt explains that the internal communications team at Morton's works to keep all the agencies on the same page when it comes to company-wide initiatives, but “[we're] also making sure that they are working with their restaurant teams so they are focusing on local components and local pitches.”

Each local agency is tasked with securing high-profile media coverage in their markets, both online and in traditional media. Drake says that while print and online are important, the bulk of Morton's press comes from TV coverage, such as clips focusing on the summer grilling season.

“[We ask] our local firms to come up with great creative ideas and pitches,” he adds. “We're hiring [agencies] for their creativity and we're providing a lot of support from the Morton's corporate office, but we want them to come up with great creative ideas that make sense in those markets.”

At a glance
Company: Morton's The Steakhouse

President/CEO: Thomas Baldwin

Headquarters: Chicago

Key trade titles: Nation's Restaurant News, Chain Leader, Restaurant Business, Restaurants & Institutions

Comms budget: Undisclosed

Marcomms team(internal): Roger Drake, chief comms officer; Patty Pleuss, VP of marketing and sales; Katrina Post, director of marketing; Cyndi Smith, senior guest relationship marketing manager; Angela Reed, database manager; Assunta Scala, internal brand and guest loyalty manager; Catherine Merritt, PR coordinator; Jillian Beard, regional marketing coordinator East; Meghan Daly, regional marketing coordinator West

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