By Christie Ison, Foodable Industry Expert
I was a latecomer to the hospitality industry. My earlier years of work were in the public relations business.
As I’ve told several people since then, I believe my PR days were essential to understanding things about hospitality. Effective communication with the customer is essential, and your front of house employees are essentially your restaurant’s PR staff.
Before you jump to any common misconceptions about public relations, let’s look at the definition as offered by the Public Relations Society of America:
“Public relations is the management function that establishes and maintains mutually beneficial relationships between an organization and the publics on whom its success or failure depends.” (Effective Public Relations, 11th edition, p. 5).
Immediately, you can see the correlation. As a restaurant owner or manager, you (and your staff) and your customers have a mutually beneficial relationship. And of course, these customers are the “public,” or audience, that determines your success or failure.
Keeping in mind this connection, here are five common public relations tactics that you can apply to effective front-of-house communications:
1. Customer Research
A core part of any public relations campaign is research. In general business, this can be to test out a new product or service or to evaluate the public’s perception of their company.
These same concepts apply to restaurant research: What kind of dishes are working better than others? Is the music you’re playing distracting or annoying? How was the customer’s overall experience? What prompted them to dine with you this evening?
My husband and I recently visited a local independent coffee shop. As we sat and enjoyed our coffees, a server came to our table and asked if we would like to sample a new smoothie product they were considering adding to the menu. Not only were we able to offer honest feedback, we were happy to have a say in the matter and to get a free treat in the process.
No need for fancy surveys or emails…your audience is right there! An excellent server can get past any polite niceties on the part of the diner and find out what they really think. And an excellent employer will incentivize this kind of intelligence gathering.
2. Crisis Communications
In corporate business, crisis communications usually means communicating to the public and to internal staff when some sort of mishap occurs. The best communicators have contingency plans in place ahead of time that are set into motion when necessary.
In a restaurant, your front of house staff is the first line of defense when bad things happen. Dealing with intoxicated patrons, medical emergencies, and even criminal events usually lands squarely in their hands, at least for the first few moments.
Have several contingency plans in place for various scenarios —in writing— and regularly train your servers in how to react and communicate with patrons and staff.
3. Relationship Management
In corporate PR, relationship management includes the nurturing of publics, or audiences, that are critical to the company’s success. This includes customers, stockholders, suppliers, and the like.
A restaurant’s front of house staff does relationship management every day, making your most important audience, your customer, happy. More specifically, excellent front of house staff cultivate relationships with their customers. This increases repeat visits and helps grow a positive impression for your restaurant in the community.
Promotion consists of messages meant to influence others and create interest in a product, person, organization, or cause. A traditional example of this in a restaurant setting might be the server listing the specials for the evening. If done properly, this controlled, targeted communication can be very effective in moving a particular dish.
Servers can also use promotion by proactively inviting the guest to an upcoming event, promoting a limited-time item, or telling the guest about the history or mission of the restaurant. This not only increases sales but also educates the customer about what your restaurant is all about, increasing their connection and buy-in for future visits.
5. Grassroots Campaigning
Grassroots campaigns are most often thought of in relation to a political movement, but small businesses also use this economical method of communication. Instead of using traditional paid advertising, these campaigns garner the support of passionate fans and encourage them to spread a particular message.
In restaurants, your front of house staff can find these champions among their own clientele. When a customer seems to be having a positive experience, the server can then invite them to share that experience on social media or restaurant review sites. Many restaurants even offer a free appetizer or other incentive for the next visit when the patron does this while still seated in the restaurant.
While the worlds of corporate public relations and restaurants are different in many ways, good communications is a universal business booster. And with your front of house staff properly trained and empowered to communicate well with your customers, your restaurant will soon reap the benefits of good public relations strategy.