After years spent crafting language and issuing press releases, Alexis Halejian found herself in a Downtown Los Angeles kitchen labeling to-go old fashioned cocktails and tonics.
The publicist and marketing specialist launched her own public relations shop on March 1, 2020. Less than two weeks later, much of the nation would be working from home. Restaurants would shutter under social distancing guidelines as a response to the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Out of necessity, her clients needed her to be more than a publicist. At their request, Halejian started responding to guest queries, working with delivery apps and drivers, writing and editing client websites, and updating social media profiles.
The sudden global shift away from dining out to eating in has sent a ripple through industries that work in tandem with restaurants, hotels and event planning. From the farmers who grow produce, to purveyors who source ingredients, to graphic designers who create customized art for restaurants, each ancillary industry has taken a hit.
“You see a lot of headlines that say ‘Save Restaurants,’” Halejian says. “This is what it feels like right now.”
In response to COVID-19 upending the dining experience, public relations professionals are now finding themselves in the trenches at restaurants, at times working alongside chefs and restaurant owners. With a shift in restaurant regulations comes an increased need to communicate with diners about rapidly changing business models, take-out options, menu alterations, evolving state and local regulations, and community efforts like crowdfunding sites to support employees left without work.
“I’m sending out more email marketing because of changing menus and situations,” Halejian says. “If we would normally send out an email, it would generally be once a month, and it was highly designed. Now it’s every week that a menu has changed, or we have an employee relief fund, or we’re donating meals to organizations to help the homeless.” Halejian also says that now, in addition to crafting the email communication, design is being done in-house rather than through external graphic designers to save time and money. “It’s basically me and the owner designing them on our own. Everyone is rolling up their sleeves and getting it done,” she says.
About 270,000 professionals work in public relations nationwide, according to the latest data available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Of the 21,200 members who belong to the Public Relations Society of America, 1,100 identify as working in travel, tourism or hospitality. During this time, many of these professionals are working for free or reduced rates, or trying to serve clients by freezing their retainers, knowing many restaurants are cash strapped with fewer customers and reduced staff.
For many public relations specialists, their decision to work for free comes from a place of love for their clients and industry. “I don’t want to leave them without any PR when they need it the most,” says Meghan Patke, president of Modern Currency PR. “Restaurants have been hit the hardest.”
And while the restaurants may be operating in different capacities, the need to convey the story is still the heart of the hospitality representative’s role. “We’re there to be your brand advocate. We’re there to tell your story,” Patke says. “If I’m able to do that, it almost trumps the easy months—the openings.”
But telling those stories requires a thoughtful, nuanced approach. The tone businesses take during this time will leave lasting impressions with consumers. “It is a sensitive climate. We don’t know what every person is dealing with,” says Diana Hossfeld, vice president at the communications agency Becca. “They could have a family member that’s sick. They could be sick themselves. We want to be really sensitive around that.”
That level of sensitivity extends to those on the receiving end of the communication as well. “It’s all about messaging that is comforting, informational or aspirational,” Patke says. “If a chef wants to do a video or heartfelt post, I’m like, ‘go for it.’ I think being organic and authentic—people want that feel-good message.”
Before the quarantine, Hossfeld was planning a book tour for a chef publishing a cookbook. Now, she’s partnering with independent bookstores to host discussions with the author via social media platforms. “Media outlets have implemented Instagram Live and Zoom sessions,” she says. This is useful because of an increase in audience interest in home cooking demonstrations as well. “I think a lot of people are finding comfort in the kitchen right now. I know I am,” Hossfeld says. “I look forward to making a new recipe, or trying a technique I haven’t tried before.”
Eventually, restaurants will re-open and allow diners to sit inside. Eateries will open their doors and want to share their stories. But Halejian predicts that when that happens there may be a shift in the way we talk about dining out. “I feel like there’s going to be less competition and more of a collaborative spirit,” Halejian says. “I think it’s easy in PR and marketing to get caught up in the awards and accolades, when really this whole industry is about respite and giving people that moment out of their busy lives to spend time with their friends and families and loved ones. I hope there will be a return to the importance of that sentiment.”