Tip of the Week: Do you really need a PR firm?

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bubnisUpdate March 18, 2015- The El Vez burrito bar opened to almost no press other than small blogs which aggregated from other small blogs. The PR firm, mentioned below, did a swell job, eh?

February 28, 2015- By Steven E. Greer

As many members of the press can attest to, most PR firms seem to be run by poorly-paid people who tend to be lazy. Public relations can be too often a sleazy industry that essentially just uses client money to get infomercials masquerading as human interest stories placed in struggling newspapers that need the cash.

I have interacted with the largest PR firms handling Big Pharma on down to the small ones representing restaurants. As one example, I have had the misfortune of crossing paths with “The Door” PR firm many times over the last several years. Run by co-founders Lois Najarian and Charlie Dougiello, The Door has managed to get several large restaurant groups as clients.

In 2012, we tried to help Marc Forgione with his Reade Street restaurant that was struggling at the time due to the economy and scaffolding out front hiding the entrance (business is now back to normal). Caroline Bubnis was handling the account and failed to do whatever it takes on her end to make the interview happen. She replied to one of our emails, but then we never heard from her again.

I ended up just going to Mr. Forgione’s new American Cut on my own and writing a review which Chef Forgione liked. I was able to write the story despite The Door, not because of The Door.

In 2013, I read about Mr. Forgione’s new endeavor with Chef Soulayphet Schwader at Khe-Yo. Unfortunately, they were hiring The Door too. This time, a Door employee named Peter McManus was assigned to the account. He was much better than Caroline Bubnis, but he went through the usual arduous PR steps of setting up the interview that made me give up. He wanted to schedule it way off in the future and make it a big hassle rather than graciously realize that I was offering free publicity.

So, once again, I ended up just going to Khe-Yo on my own and writing another review that everyone liked. Mr. McManus wrote, “(your review) was amazing and hysterical and we really appreciate all the kind words”. However, the story was made possible despite The Door, not because of The Door, although I am sure that Mr. McManus took credit.

Since my article on Khe-Yo, there has been very little press and the restaurant is mostly empty for lunch and brunch. Khe-Yo has great food but not many people know about it. The news on American Cut has also been scant. Is The Door really helping them and earning their fees?

The worst experience with The Door came in February of 2014 when they approached me out of the blue to do a story on the new Pace University performing arts building in FiDi. I thought to myself that perhaps The Door had finally gotten wise and had begun doing their homework on the local media that is relevant and worthy to pitch ideas. However, when we filmed the two professors of Pace, the true incompetence of The Door became evident.

Because Pace is a big client, The Door had several team members involved, including the head of the firm, Lois Najarian. We were clearly supposed to meet in the theater for the interview, but The Door team took the Dean of the school and the other professor to the new teaching building blocks away. An hour went by and no one thought to call the theater to ask if we were there. The entire shoot would have been cancelled if it were not for my responsible investigating and calling around, tracking down The Door team. Rubbing salt in the wound, one of the people walked off with some of our audio mic equipment by accident.

The Pace shoot was a veritable cluster f*ck, so to speak. Ms. Najarian was clearly worried about her reputation with her big client and, of course, blamed me for being in the wrong location, etc.

Meanwhile, going on around the same time as the Pace fiasco, I was reaching out to the new El Vez restaurant that was still months away from opening. Son of a gun, they too had hired The Door, and good ole Caroline Bubnis was on the account! Of course, by now she was actively sabotaging anything I tried to do, and nothing materialized through them with El Vez.

I was forced to research Mr. Starr on my own and found some bad comments about him in the Philadelphia press which biased me before meeting him. I was convinced that he was a nightclub owner serving crappy food in Las-Vegas-style venues (which is not the case). His PR firm was doing him such a disservice by dealing with me improperly. Fortunately, on El Vez’s opening night, Mr. Starr sat with me and talked my head off, and I had a better opinion of him afterward.

Over the last several months, I have gotten to know the people behind El Vez very well because it is the only decent restaurant in the area. The place is now serving some of the best Mexican food in the city, yet no one in the mainstream print papers has given them attention. It is unknown whether Mr. Starr is intentionally telling The Door to not promote El Vez or whether they are just bad at their PR job. I tend to think that it is the latter.

Last night, The Door team stopped by El Vez on a Thursday to promote the place. They had a Sports Illustrated model named Hannah Ferguson with them. However, there were no print reporters or even Post “Page 6” mentions. All that The Door could muster was to post a photo on Twitter of Hannah.

What a joke. I would love to know how much Starr is paying The Door.

In an age when even the Wall Street Journal is struggling financially so much that fake stories can be planted easily, how is it that El Vez’s press consists mostly of BatteryPark.TV stories? There is some blame to go around. Just exactly who is to blame is unknown. Let’s wait and see how the new El Vez burrito bar is publicized.

A good PR firm should earn their money by properly researching the New Media sites covering their clients. That requires someone who is not lazy and who is willing to research each site by reading their stories. Simply looking at the home page of the website and sniffing it out, looking for other advertisers, or numbers of views, does not cut it. Far too often, in my experience, PR firms perform virtually no due diligence. They think that their ability to bribe editors and get stories planted is what earns their fees.

Perhaps the most egregious example of this was the firm handing the Shinola account. I interviewed the CEO using my own networking skills, bypassing PR firms. After the interview, the CEO himself instructed his ad-buying agency to speak with me about placing ads. They called, and I was astonished to learn that they did not even know we had interviewed the fricken CEO! True story.

Is The Door the worst PR firm? Who knows. I am sure that there are many others out there just like them.

My advice to company executives who think they need a PR firm is to reconsider that strategy. The crucial decisions on interview requests should be made by an in-house team that knows the neighborhood well.

If you do hire one, think for yourself. Don’t hire a PR firm just because Shake Shack is one of their clients. Group Think is the best friend to PR firms when gaining new clients.

In my experience, a PR firm is only useful for greasing the wheels of established media and facilitating fake stories to be published. Save your money and do it yourself.

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