Friday, March 4

Questioning PR: Bruce Buschel At Southfork Kitchen

Bruce Buschel on PR
While traveling through Europe, Bruce Buschel, who now owns the Southfork Kitchen (Southfork), was struck by the abundance of restaurants that served food with locally grown or raised ingredients. He believed opening a New York restaurant based on that idea would be a winner in the Hamptons.

The idea isn't as novel as it sounds. Celebrated Houston Chef Clive Berkman always tells me the same thing. If he cooks while traveling, he always leans toward making a menu based on local ingredients. But that's neither here nor there. This is a lesson for PR, especially my students.

A Rehash Of The 'Public Relations' Problem.

What makes Buschel interesting is his New York Times column about opening and managing a restaurant. The last two columns were especially interesting to anyone in communication: The Problem With Public Relations and Do P.R. People Have To Like The Food. They offer an unabashed glimpse inside how the restauranteur views public relations.

Buschel was originally dazzled by a local public relations firm's pitch and just as easily disappointed when they didn't produce a single story before the opening. When he called them on it, they pushed the err on him. His restaurant was "too hip to be square and too fishy to be hip," they said. And specifically, as Buschel lists in his column, these were the firm's primary issues:

• The New York Times blog was a problem, scooping PR or getting in the way.
• Area restaurants were equally sustainable and/or organic (no contrast).
• We have to taste your food in order to get excited about doing our jobs.

SouthforkBuschel really took exception to the third point. He thought it was ridiculous that paid help would have to like the food. So he sacked the first firm and tried a second firm whose principal blogged for the the Huffington Post and appeared as a judge on Iron Chef. Except, go figure, the second PR firm eventually left a bad taste in Buschel's mouth too. He was especially unhappy after receiving a list of everything his restaurant did wrong after the guru/principal dined there with a fellow critic. The guru didn't even like the name anymore. The name?

So Buschel wrote a post about it and criticized PR. Of course, as you might imagine, the mostly neutral story drew the ire of public relations professionals on both sides of the line — those who sided with Buschel and those defending their industry. (It almost always happens that way.) Then, Buschel cherry picked one response for a follow up — a parsed point-by-point rebuttal.

The Real Problem With Public Relations.

The real problem with public relations in this case is that Buschel didn't want public relations and the first PR firm didn't promise public relations. He wanted publicity — high-priced cheerleaders without sexy legs. They promised publicity too, but then couldn't deliver it. So they invented excuses like all faux public relations firms do.

The tell is in the third excuse. The firm promised pre-opening buzz and accepted a check without tasting the food. But then when they failed to deliver results, they wanted samples. Dopes.

The second PR firm wasn't much better. Buschel still wanted publicity and the second PR firm promised publicity. But after what seemed to be a promising start, that PR firm stopped offering publicity and started offering consult beyond public relations.

The tell is in claiming the eatery has the wrong name. It seems likely the name game was stolen from the food critic's notes because if the name was so bad to begin with then why wouldn't the firm had mentioned it before? Baloney.

All this leads me to believe that the real problem is in the definition. It's a common problem too. People say public relations but they really mean publicity. Here are some thumbnail versions of longer definitions to provide the basic context.

Public Relations. The job is to provide counsel on the exchange of mutually beneficial communication between the organization and various publics.

Media Relations. The job is to maximize positive coverage in the mass media without paying for it directly through advertising.

Publicity. The job is the deliberate attempt to manage the public's perception of a subject, which often includes an emphasis on media but is not limited to it.

pr cheerleaderAt a glance, it might seem that the second PR firm was attempting to offer some semblance of public relations. However, the approach in how they passed along conversational notes after dinner with a critic was more confrontational than mutually beneficial. The story sounds more in line with what we might expect a celebrity social media ego to do — act as paid adversaries to their own clients, beating them with customer comments.

All in all, despite the propensity for public relations professionals to jump into one camp or the other, there are no camps. Everyone looks equally foolish, but not everyone looks fraudulent. Buschel might be like hundreds of other clients in that he was hoodwinked by non-performing publicists into accepting an erroneous definition of the trade, but his intent seems pure.

Bolstering Southfork Kitchen Would Benefit From Integration.

It seems to me that there are a variety of real and perceived challenges that the restaurant might want to overcome. First and foremost, forget the babble about the name. You can call a company anything and it will stand the test of time once it earns a reputation. One of the most talked about computer companies in the world is named after a rather generic fruit, after all.

Some of the other conversation threads are clutter too. PR firms can do ground work before tasting any food; most of them assume they will for awhile, especially during a pre-opening period. The New York Times column was not and is not a liability; it is an asset. (Even if there were some cannibalized stories, plenty of other stories remained.) Even most of the opinions pushed back on Buschel could be chalked up to bringing in the wrong audience.

With all of these tidbits out of the way, there is only one potential problem left on the table: the unique selling point. If this argument is valid, then the solution needs to come from marketing more than public relations. Specifically, Buschel might consider re-prioritizing his contrast points. I wouldn't abandon organic, but maybe it's not the number one focus or perhaps some added clarity would help make it distinct.

Other than that, the problem may have nothing to do with the restaurant. The real problem may have to do with the liberal use of terms. Mixing up public relations and publicity always creates a breakdown in client-vendor communication. It's an industry problem.

farmerIf either PR firm really did public relations, the local farmers would be promoting the restaurant, area associations would be booking luncheons, and the sudden interest would have attracted the interest of foodies and faux foodies because those folks hate to be left out.

As for additional media exposure, there are enough stories to sell assuming the firm would work beyond their normal lists. They may need a new one for this unique venue. And, if select critics didn't like the food or service, the firm would be charged with finding common ground and providing feedback. They would not simply bleed the client as if they were the owner.

Then again, I'm not convinced Buschel wanted public relations help. It seems to me that he wants publicity help even though he is doing a fine job on his own. The truth is that he already nailed one surefire way to get publicity — if you want people to write about you in a social media world, write some smack about public relations.

Any time anyone writes smack about public relations, the entire bubble blows up in a public debate between those who claim to know and do not versus those who might know but never do more than communicate tales of industry woe. Buschel said he finds this ironic, but ironic isn't the right word. The right word is pathetic.
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