Something Smells Good In The Kitchen

PR is defined as the planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain goodwill between an organisation and its public.
Spoilt For Choice

Simmer, stew or steam? Oven-bake or broil? You’ve mixed the ingredients, prepared your dish and are wondering how best to ready it for the table.

The owner of a successful hotel, recently returned from a trade show, confessed to me that he had been dazzled by the range of professional services, media and routes to market on offer there. As he wryly put it, there is something very sobering about hearing from every quarter of all of the things that you are not doing well and he had returned to his business half-expecting to find it limping rather than racing along.

At the same time, he was quick to acknowledge the need for practises aimed at building and maintaining a market and wondered which of the range he had seen I thought most important to the hospitality world. I’m not certain which is the most valuable, and I know that each business must find the mix of activities that suits it best rather than go one route alone, but I have found that PR is probably the most undervalued and misunderstood activity available to the hotel and restaurant owner.

In part, this is thanks to the power of the press and we are often inclined to think of PR only in terms of column inches. But exposure in the media is not the be-all and end-all of public relations and the owner who fixates on the press to the exclusion of all else misses out on some of the greater opportunities for building relations with the public that PR brings to the mix.

Goodwill Hunting

What exactly is PR, if it’s to be more than simple publicity? I did a search recently to find a good working definition and was dismayed to find a great deal of technical jargon and unwieldy explanations on the websites of professional bodies across the world. None of them on their own satisfied me so I have cobbled together a description that works best for me.

For the purposes of this article, PR is defined as the planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain goodwill between an organisation and its public. This is achieved not only through the traditional media but anywhere a business informs its public, whether in the street, on mobile devices, in chat-rooms or on other discussion platforms.

So where does PR stand in relation to brand? I have written previously that a brand is the relationship between producer and consumer and that the activity of branding is primarily about telling the story of that relationship.

For me then, it is simple. Good PR both tells a great story and encourages others to tell that story on our behalf. It deals with the relationships that lie at the heart of every business. It encourages the public to engage with what’s going on in the relationship and to ask: ‘What happens next?’

A Host Of Good Ideas

So how do you go about putting PR to work for your business? I met recently with Tim Magee, Principal at Host PR, an agency that works with businesses in the hospitality and travel industries, and asked him how he sees it.

Tim regards PR as a stepped process. First, he studies the business. He asks about its purpose and what it seeks to achieve through PR. Is it to position a business, establish credentials, grow awareness, drive sales or a combination of all of these? (Ultimately, of course, it is to influence choice, for unless a business influences its public to choose it, it is no longer a business). Then he enquires about the audience, where they are and what they are doing. Finally, he considers the needs of that particular group (or groups) and asks what needs to be said or shown to it in order to establish and maintain goodwill.

Having established purpose, Tim then asks how and where he might tell the story. This matching of story to purpose is hugely important. Too often, the naive business-owner believes, like Oscar Wilde before him, that ‘there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about’. There is one thing much worse than either and that is being talked about for the wrong reasons. Too many businesses find themselves paraded in the public eye as a sensation or a curiosity without asking what purpose it helps to achieve (apart from selling newspapers or filling column inches).

Tim must weigh up which elements of the business story are best suited to his purpose. There are many such aspects. The origins of the company, the background of its owners, the nature of the product or service on offer, the lie of the land in which the company does business, a series of recent events, whether fortunate or unfortunate; all of these must be considered in the light of suitability.

It is important to be brutally honest here. Whilst each of us is endlessly curious about our own story, others do not necessarily share our interest. It is the task of the PR professional to sift through and choose only those parts that fit his client’s purpose. The story must resonate in some way with its audience and must speak particularly to its motivations, its desires or its fears. It must move the audience in a certain way and establish the goodwill that will later prompt choice. Otherwise, it is merely entertainment, serving only to distract or amuse.

The Medium Is The Message

Then, Tim must consider where he will tell the story or who will tell it on his behalf. So often, context is everything. The same story told in the general news or the business section of a newspaper carries different weight. That same story again, told with a sneer or laced with innuendo in the gossip column, can damn a business or put it on the back foot. One helps seal a deal; the other opens a can of worms.

In the same way, a story told by an independent and trusted professional or well-regarded public figure might have much greater heft than one told by a hired gun. In the US, Oprah Winfrey’s choice of favourite book can make a best seller. Around the world, iconic critics fill or empty restaurants at the stroke of a pen. One man’s offending meat swiftly becomes every man’s poison.

At other times, the audience listens more easily to the voice of the ordinary man in the street. Over the past few years, websites have sprung up everywhere offering a platform for the views of the apparently ordinary, but highly influential, Everyman. These anti-heroes can stop a campaign in its tracks or buzz angrily around the heads of the rich and the powerful and sting them into a response.

Even amongst well-known figures, context is everything. Here at home, a feature on the Late Late Show means one thing or another depending on who hosts the programme. One personality inspires; another irritates. Again, purpose is king and Tim must ask which voice will best help achieve his purpose on behalf of his client.

The Truth Well Told

I asked Tim why a story captures the imagination, first of the editor or journalist, and then of the listener or reader? “People will always respond to a good story and the better told, the more effective. In a fragmented world full of sound bytes and spin, a well-told story with a clear message will always capture the attention of the audience.”

For Tim, each client is different and each situation equally so. The story can be told in many different ways, but often it begins with something personal, specific or true or real.

This can be as much about angle as anything else. The skilful PR professional blends a mix of the familiar and the unexpected and seeks to present the whole in a way that sparks interest in his audience. In Tim’s experience, “surprise is almost always good”, although certain scenarios, involving, for example, safety or security, will demand that there are no tales of the unexpected to spook the audience.

The Host & PR

Finally, I asked Tim why PR and a good story are so well suited to the world of hospitality. “Hospitality is all about experience, the experience you have in a restaurant, a hotel, a spa or a golf club. PR is the most effective way of communicating that experience to your audience. Everyone has eaten in a restaurant, most have stayed in a hotel and more are experiencing spas, golf courses and so on. Through their own experiences, the public have opinions – they know what they like and don’t like – and they can relate immediately to the stories they hear. Public taste has developed and become more sophisticated and demanding and the hospitality venue has to stand out from the competition. PR offers the tools to best tell the story in a way that appeals to the audience.”

To hear the good news about how PR might help you tell your story, visit