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Restaurants are good at fostering love. They provide the site for many a marriage proposal, the spot for the most common Valentine's Day activity, even the favorite place to take mom on Mother's Day.

But finding their own perfect match — especially when it comes to agency relationships — can often leave operators feeling like Willie Nelson, "lookin' for love in all the wrong places."

It doesn't have to be that way. Most public relations providers to the restaurant industry are more like Frankie Valli -- we "can't take our eyes off of you." That doesn't mean we're love-struck puppies. We just love telling our clients' stories to the public, building buzz for great restaurant brands and bringing customers in the door.

But like dating, fostering that "lovin' feelin'" starts with choosing the right partner.

Years ago, I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Gian Gonzaga, the chief researcher for eHarmony, the popular online dating site. He gave some advice to love seekers: "The more honest you can be with yourself, the more likely you'll find someone who complements you. If you are unsure of who you are, or fake who you are to attract someone, the harder it will be to find a perfect match."

Sadly, PRHarmony hasn't been invented (yet), but the underlying philosophy of searching for a perfect fit is the same. A restaurant operator will find PR love with an agency that embraces its company values, has a clear understanding of the vision and has a shared interest in success.

Not everyone achieves this kind of match instinctively. We've all seen someone go after the pretty young thing or the big man on campus only to discover they have nothing in common. It can happen in agency relationships too, but companies can avoid the trap by thinking carefully about their goals well before starting a search.

These goals can vary from a one-time project like publicizing the opening of a new location to a long-term goal of capturing share of voice from competitors. A company president may want to raise his or her profile through speaking or byline placements, or a company may want to build social media engagement. Public relations agencies can help in all aspects, but each firm has a specialty. By identifying their goals early in the process, operators can attract the right type of agencies in their search.

However, before embarking on an agency search, consider these other critical factors:

  • Budget. Many of us have what my mother referred to as: "Champagne taste and a beer budget." Operators are right to want the best for their company, but that doesn't always mean the most expensive. Not sure what to spend? The University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication's GAP (Generally Accepted Practices) study provides useful data points for estimating public relations budgets. Or just ask. Most public relations agencies will provide estimated budgets – provided operators are clear in their goals.
  • Size. Yes, size matters when conducting an agency search. Most restaurant operators have a choice among large national/international firms, local/regional firms and boutique firms focused on a specific niche. Operators should evaluate both their current size and their growth projections for 12-18 months out. If, for example, a brand is currently at 12 restaurants in one market with no expansion plans, a small firm can lend strong local media relationships and can advise on other profile-raising activities such as community partnerships and events. Growth brands might consider a boutique or regional firm that can develop and manage national campaigns and easily scale up with the brand's growth.
  • Experience. Jimi Hendrix asked, "Are you experienced?" He might have meant it in a different context, but it's an important question to ask during an agency search. A good firm will balance highly experienced and wise leaders with younger professionals brimming with fresh ideas.

Of course finding a match is one thing, keeping the match another. But as in any long-term relationship, open lines of communication can lead to some great results. We'll touch on that in a few weeks. Until then, stop "looking for love in all the wrong places" and instead believe, as Celine Dion did, in the "Power of Love."

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Latest posts by Tracy Aiello Henderson
Tracy Aiello Henderson
Tracy Aiello Henderson knows the bottom-line impact of a finely tuned awareness campaign -- she’s been telling her clients’ stories to the media for nearly 15 years. She’s worked across many industries, but her real love is developing PR campaigns for restaurant and restaurant industry providers that build brand and buzz.
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