San Diego's Manipulative Public Relations Companies | How Restaurants & Bars Really 'Make News'

February 16, 2020

Unfortunately for our city's culinary development, San Diego's prevailing food news is driven by local public relations firms, resulting in an overall control of the restaurant reporting industry, as well as unreasonable diner expectations and increased food costs.

Most restaurant industry outsiders don't understand the inner workings of the hospitality marketing business in the 21st century. Many think when a newspaper, magazine, or website publishes a story on a restaurant, bar, or hotel, they do so because of the merits of the establishment. That is not the nature of this business, at least not nowadays. Sure, there are a few places that have slipped through the proverbial cracks onto the main stage because they are truly awesome, but most of San Diego's big-name bars and restaurants have a paid team of publicists working for them to get their establishment plastered in every publication imaginable.

Some of these publicists can be a vindictive, manipulative bunch of "mean girls". Say something negative (albeit honest) about one of their clients, publish learned facts without their prior permission, or don't publish anything at all, and you could be blackballed, ostracized, reprimanded, shoved to the bottom of the media contact lists, etc., especially if you're a lil ole 'blog' like SanDiegoVille. And therein lies a pretty big problem - no one at the bottom of the list is hand fed news or invited to comp'd dinners, forcing most "news" outlets and bloggers to enter this vicious cycle of rewards-for-favor like Pavlov's dog, publishing positive press releases with little thought or consideration in exchange for table scraps.

So many PR pros celebrating
San Diego Union Tribune
food writer's retirement
The reality is that there are about a dozen public relations companies in San Diego that have restaurants, bars, hotels, etc. on a hefty monthly retainer in exchange for inundating the inbox of every blogger, journalist, "influencer", and talking head in-and-out of town with even the most mundane information about their clients. A new dish on the menu? A creative cocktail for the holidays? Yea, there's a press release for that, and you've undoubtedly seen SanDiegoVille publish some edited form of one or another during our tenure. We're not going to say that we don't. We definitely do. Content is king and the more you have, the more hits you'll get and the more valuable your site and brand become as a result. But it's the "real news" that is deliberately withheld and strategically distributed in intervals to the PR group's favorites - those they deem most useful.

At one point, all the "publications" - blogs, newspapers, and magazines alike - received alerts and press releases at the same time via mass emails, but those days have long since passed. The San Diego 'big boys' of culinary news (U-T, San Diego Magazine, Eater) - the untouchables - must have raised a stink because us bastardly blogs are able to forego editorial hurdles and bureaucratic BS to get the information published damn near immediately. Those 'top tier' publications didn't like that, so now they work out behind-the-curtains arrangements with PR reps so that they receive the most worthwhile scoops days before us pesky punks to ensure that they break it first. Generally, if you see something titled like "First Look", it was likely arranged months in advance and the restaurant was protected from the eyes of any other reporter. What do the PR companies get for this? They are able to use the goodwill garnered through the hand-passed "scoops" to get less sensational "news" published in the future. Also, those year end Best of lists, you think those are merit based?!? Come on now. 

With the rise of 'celebrity chef' entertainment and restaurant 'news' as a commodity, information has become so controlled that there are often instances where we are denied the validity of information that we have obtained through actual journalistic research. Research be damned! Regurgitation of well-crafted press releases is the new standard. We have had situations in which we are investigating for a story, followed up seeking verification of information with the restaurant's known publicist, only to be explicitly told that our info was invalid. We have also been asked to please hold a story until leases are signed and things are finalized. THEN a few days later, we see one of the big media outlets publish a story confirming those exact 'rumors' as facts.

We've also had a situation where we obtained pre-opening photos of a highly anticipated restaurant by a big name San Diego celebrity chef, only to be diplomatically threatened by the restaurant's public relations company if we were to publish the photos. We were even contacted by the food editor/writer of the local magazine that was promised the "First Look," stating in writing that both he and the publication for which he worked for would be my "enemy" (no kidding, he said that in writing) if we were to publish our photos. We were subsequently blackballed from the media preview of the restaurant after being hesitant to comply with the PR company's demand and no longer work with that local magazine, even after promoting many of their events in the past, some as a listed media sponsor.

We have also been asked to take down an article by the owner of a restaurant collective known for its ever-expanding chain of mediocre breakfast eateries. Regarding our researched post about his newest culinary endeavors, we were told that: "there are far too many inaccurate details in this article and I don't have time to address this right now. I come back Monday and can have something back to you with the correct information by end of day Monday assuming you take this down." We unpublished the article based on his email only to read a post that very Monday morning on the exact restaurant openings published by Eater San Diego with almost the identical information as was published by us a few days earlier. He had us take down the post just so he could pass it along to another outlet. 

Restaurants are actually losing out as a result of the public relations bubble. Not only are the PR companies frequently pandering to their industry pals rather than those that truly move the needle (many local media party regulars actually have ZERO following or web reach), but a problematic result of the PR takeover of the hospitality industry is over-hype, which sets the bar too high for the customers' expectation levels, resulting in eventual disappointment when the eatery cannot live up to the pedestal it's been put on. This is why frequently too much media attention can be a curse on a restaurant (uh hum...BRACERO). Not to mention that when a restaurant's money is going toward funding an overpriced and expensive PR push, it raises the cost for the owners, which passes to the diner, and essentially everyone loses out. We see countless restaurants once represented by a local PR firm quickly going out of business once the initial buzz dies down.

Hospitality/restaurant reporting is a cutthroat industry nowadays. It is not anonymous like it once was. San Diego's culinary community is small and intimate and the information is very much controlled by Big PR. Nearly all the biggest restaurants and restaurant groups in San Diego have at one time had a PR Company actively on retainer, including Cohn Restaurant Group (BO-beau, Coasterra, Blue Point, etc.), CH Projects (Craft & Commerce, Ironside Fish & Oyster, Born & Raised and more), Verant Group (Barleymash, The Smoking Gun, Tavern, True North, and on and on) RMD Group (Ciro's, Don Chido, Rustic Root), and SDCM (Kettner Exchange, The Grass Skirt, Firehouse). As someone in the food news business, you have to remain acquiescent to PR companies to stay in the game, or you will quickly be banished from their media distribution and invite lists.

At this point, we are currently blackballed by at least three public relations firms in San Diego, which are coincidentally run by longtime friends and business acquaintances. The effect of this blacklist is that the clients of these firms are losing out on substantial coverage and we are losing out on content. Certainly this article is not going to make us any friends in that field, but we think it necessary to inform our readership and the community-at-large of how things really play out. 

We at SanDiegoVille intend to rise from the unfortunate moniker of BLOG that has relegated us to the bowels of publicists' media lists, and in the meantime, we'll embrace the traditional notion of performing journalistic research and scouring the city for news so that our readers can hear about all the fun & delicious San Diego happenings here first.

There are a decreasingly few really great PR firms in San Diego that do their absolute best to maximize exposure for their clients in a fair and conscientious way without resorting to sophomoric tactics. For those owners and businesses looking for a recommendation for a professional San Diego public relations company, please reach out by email to [email protected]