What Working at a Steakhouse Taught Me about Media Relations

The summer of 2007, I volunteered as a marketing intern at my hometown radio station. My job was to attend local movie premieres (the kindof events you can win tickets for if you’re the fifth caller to the station), check tickets, and hand out swag. I’d even get to watch the film afterward. While watching the best of 2007’s summer movies was a good way to escape the heat, it didn’t pay my college tuition, so I took a part-time job waitressing at a steakhouse.

After a summer in the hot kitchens and a few years working with journalists, it occurred to me that a few months with wood-polished tables and Surf ‘n’ Turf specials prepared me as much for media relations as my more formal training. Beyond learning a few tricks for getting grease stains out of Oxford shirts, my time at the steakhouse allowed me to work with a variety of different people in an environment where each request was time-sensitive. The relationships between customers, restaurant management, and chefs are not unlike those of a journalist, PR staff, and a brand.

1) Anticipate customers’ needs, but also respect the kitchen.
The hardest media relations skill to learn is the concept of anticipation. You have to intuit what a reporter wants before they need it, without nagging or being obtrusive. Meanwhile, a client wants to ensure coverage. Effective waitressing requires a balance between offering what the kitchen (in this case, the client) can provide, and ensuring the customers (journalists) are satisfied with what’s on their plates.

In an environment where increased sales could equal a higher tip, waitstaff are encouraged to “upsell” customers — it benefits them and the restaurant when customers spend more. At the same time, waitstaff are the ones who lose out first if a customer feels underappreciated, or like their server is pushing them.

Balancing expectations of the kitchen and customers is the hardest challenge of working in a restaurant. The same principle applies to media relations.

2) Know when to check in and follow up.
The best customer I had was an ex-Marine who had just ended his military tour.

“Can I start you off with a drink?” I asked him.

“Yup, a Grey Goose martini. Dirty is good. And a Diet Coke. Then I’ll have the steak and lobster dinner.”

“Mashed potatoes ok?”

“Mashed potatoes, and a side of broccoli. And also a house salad.”

“Ranch, blue cheese, Ital–”

“Ranch. And I’ll go ahead and put in an order for a chocolate fudge sundae for dessert.” He then pulled out a newspaper and began ardently reading. After that, I didn’t bother him except to place food on his table (he inhaled everything, and even downed another martini).

In the same way, being intuitive about when a reporter may be available allows you to be less intrusive and more informative. Be smart about when they’re busy: check their Twitter to see if they’re overburdened with work, or on vacation. And sometimes, leaving the person alone to read the paper can garner the best results. This particular customer tipped 25% because he had what he needed.

3) Be subtle, not sales-y.
At the steakhouse, we were taught a trick to boost wine sales: When introducing yourself to the customers, hold a bottle of wine at their eye level. As you name the specials of the day, don’t mention the wine; customers can already see it and will naturally be curious. Describing the wine and presenting it outright seems over-the-top. Instead, displaying the wine without explicit commentary piques customers’ interest and encourages them to ask for your recommendations.

A substantial portion of media relations is devoted to crafting a pitch. The more you tailor your pitch to a particular journalist, the better. Like presenting a wine without comment, offering a client announcement should make the reporter interested without outwardly selling. Figure out why a reporter would be interested in talking to a client or hearing a news update. If you’re genuinely excited to share your client’s opportunity with someone that’s a good fit for the story, then chances are your media contact will be too.

4) Handle picky eaters with respect.
I once had a customer who wanted to order a chicken and shrimp dish — with only the shrimp. She asked me specifically how many shrimp she could get in exchange for not including the chicken on the plate.

“A few?” I guessed.

“Exactly how many?”She answered, peeved.

After some back-and-forth with the chef and the restaurant manager, who was incredulous at her question, we agreed that she could have three additional pieces of shrimp on her plate.

“Oh, that’s not enough,” she replied. “Can I have four?”

I said that wouldn’t be possible. She agreed to three shrimp, but only left a 10% tip.

Most PR veterans have a story about a persnickety journalist, just as I’m sure most journalists have stories about picky PR people. Sometimes, you catch a person on an off day. It happens. What matters is that you treat the other person with respect. You’re likely to interact with these contacts again. Taking the time to learn from past coverage what a reporter may be interested in could help mitigate an ill-pitched story in the future.

5) The only way you’re going to meet that deadline is with a little help.
How often have you had too few hours in the day to handle reporter requests? Likewise, at a restaurant the other servers are your best friends during a lunch rush. Whether you’ve been given an 8-top table to wait on or a major client product launch, admitting that you can’t do it all is not only acceptable, but encouraged.

In both industries, timing is paramount. Having the help of your co-workers when you’re busiest — or lending them a hand when they need you to carry a few dishes or send a few pitches — will ultimately be faster and less stressful than trying to accomplish any task on your own. During busy times, sometimes attending to the specific needs of each person and the myriad details of each task can only be accomplished through teamwork. And after a successful client campaign or a particularly hectic dinner shift, celebrating with your coworkers can be the best way to recognize a job well done.