The Role of Public Relations in an Increasingly Fraught World
Telling stories in the #MeToo era, and the fear of who knew what, when.
February 28, 2018 ● 13 min read
By Priya Krishna | Illustration by Daniel Krall
We don’t really talk about the publicists.
That’s mainly because by their very nature, publicists are not meant to be the topic of conversation — they are conductors of attention, not its beneficiaries. As Weinstein-era news headlines continue to impact the restaurant industry with unique force, the role of the restaurant publicist has become all the more complicated: is it also their job to speak on behalf of the banished?
For those—predominantly women—paid to both champion and protect reputations, can there be decency in defense?
Though the average person might be unaware of a publicist’s graceful system of pulleys and levers behind the curtain, for journalists, it can become easy to write off their persistent, chirping omnipresence in our inboxes. Publicists can be both necessary—access to big names isn’t what it once was—and useful if armed with the right information. As the gatekeepers of the food world, they largely orchestrate the dominant narratives in media, propelling new talent into the spotlight and keeping the existing talent worthy of conversation.
But so deep is our moment of fraught national reflection, that even publicists must reckon with the reckoning.
Through scrutiny both public and private, many publicists now feel it necessary to reexamine the people and places they choose to represent; to consider their entwined values, and their willingness, or lack thereof, to defend clients who behave badly — in some cases, towards their own publicists.
Not every firm agrees on the way forward. Some don’t believe that change within the PR practice is necessary at all, but as the industry at large roils in the midst of a great upheaval, it’s worth taking a closer look at the people charged with controlling the optics.
Every restaurant publicist will tell you more or less the same thing about his or her client list: we only represent restaurants and chefs whose work we firmly believe in, and whose stories we know we can confidently tell.
Successful relationships between PR and restaurants are built on an inherent level of trust. That trust flows between both parties — the publicists must feel that the chefs they pitch do good, honest work, and chefs must trust that the publicists have their backs. So to what extent should publicists be blamed, or even expected to defend their clients, when harassment allegations come out?
After accounts were published in The New York Times against Ken Friedman, who runs a number of restaurants in New York, including The Spotted Pig and The Breslin, the editor-in-chief of the online food website, TASTE, Matt Rodbard, posted a staunch criticism of Friedman’s public relations representation, Becca PR, on Twitter. “Anybody who works in media knows that Friedman, April, and co is one of the most PRd brands in NYC,” he wrote. “The house that Becca built. The word is accountability.”
“It was a gut response,” Rodbard says of the post. “Too many chefs have remained quiet. I have talked to friends in the industry, who have been advised against speaking out. That is wrong. I stand behind that.”
The morning after the allegations broke, Becca PR parted ways with Friedman and his partner, April Bloomfield. (Becca PR’s founder, Becca Parrish, confirmed the firm was no longer working with the restaurants, but declined to comment further.)
For years, PR firms — not just Becca PR — have competed for the business of high-profile chefs and restaurateurs. High-profile means high stakes, and those firms with clients who have been revealed as serial perpetrators of sexual harassment now bear the brunt of the other end of the stick. When the accusations hit, publicists are blamed for being complicit—but to those in the business, culpability really depends on the approach.
Olga Katsnelson, the founder of Postcard Communications in San Francisco, says that her relationships with her clients are relatively distant. “I don’t see what is happening within the restaurant day to day,” she says. “Our contact is emails, texts, phone calls, and a few in-person meetings per month, some of which take place off-site. I don’t have a privileged view of how an organization runs.”
Others, like Meredith Vachon and Rachel Ayotte, who run the Los Angeles- and Dallas-based firm, Bread & Butter Public Relations, suggest that a good publicist invests deeply in the restaurants they represent, and would, therefore, know when something was going on. “It’s not just about weekly meetings,” Ayotte says. “We are in there on Tuesday nights and Saturday afternoons just to be in that space, so we can see for ourselves what’s connecting, and what’s working.”
Still, many, like Rodbard, place proclaimed ignorance in the realm of fantasy. “There’s no way PR firms don’t know about their chefs’ behavior. You are taking your client out to events and meetings,” he says. “There are plenty of chefs that get wasted and act inappropriately with their PR team surrounding them. I just don’t buy that excuse.”
In talking to Eater’s Serena Dai and The Times-Picayune’s Brett Anderson, responsible for spearheading the watershed sexual harassment reports of Mario Batali and John Besh, respectively, both said that it wasn’t immediately clear whether or not the longtime publicists they dealt with were aware that this behavior was happening. Batali had in-house PR, and Besh worked with The Door, a national PR firm; The Door’s Lois Najarian O'Neill declined to be interviewed for this story, and Batali’s in-house communications team declined to comment on prior knowledge. Both chefs have since hired crisis management firms.
All that said, when both Dai and Anderson sent over a complete list of the allegations, the publicists were ultimately cooperative in helping the investigation to proceed. Anderson remembers a meeting between himself, Besh, and his business partner, Octavio Mantilla, where both The Door’s representative and the crisis management firm were in the room. The publicists “let me ask the questions,” he says. “To their credit, the meeting stayed relatively civil. They did run a lot of the interference you'd expect people in their position to run, prior to and after the interview. But they weren’t cumbersome from a journalistic standpoint.”
Dai recalls her experience with Batali’s publicists as “surprisingly smooth.” Aside from asking for an extension, “There wasn’t anything that they were like, ‘You can’t publish.’ They were pretty honest, and there wasn’t a lot of pushback,” she says.
Neither reporter faults the publicists they worked with on the stories for representing the accused sexual harassers. “Everyone watching these stories unfold needs to be realistic about what counts as complicity,” Anderson says. “Whatever anyone is experiencing here is not good. There are going to be folks put in the middle to help mitigate, and that’s what these PR people are doing. I had to remind myself repeatedly when I was in any heated exchanges that PR was not there to showcase their own beliefs. They were there to do a job.”
And, as Anderson points out, even if these publicists did know about their clients’ behavior, they were by no means the only group allowing this to happen — journalists were glorifying these places, and awards organizations were honoring them. The behaviors existed before #MeToo, but the alarm bells didn’t, he adds. That’s how we got to where we are—uneasy in our examination of every past action, every memorable meal. None of us want to feel like we fell for something we had no intention of endorsing.
“Anyone who saw this and didn’t think it was a reason to be alarmed is complicit,” he says. “It’s unrealistic to assume that PR people would blow the whistle.”
II. The Shade of Gray That Keeps You Up at Night
Everyone thinks they know what they’d do.
According to her website, independent publicist Blake MacKay dislikes press releases, under-seasoned pizza, and the patriarchy. She’s hailed for her ability to help craft, and then land, a distinct and personal point of view; as a self-identifying queer woman, she also makes it a priority to represent and uplift other queer women.
MacKay’s client list already included Friedman and April Bloomfield’s restaurant/butcher shop, White Gold, when the allegations against Friedman surfaced in the Times. White Gold is part-owned by its chefs, Erika Nakamura and Jocelyn Guest, and MacKay felt she owed the women her loyalty. “As someone who counts herself as deeply progressive and deeply feminist, I imagined I would be quite rigid if this stuff ever touched my clients. The reality is a little different,” she says. “I felt sick about it, but I was very committed to sticking with Erika and Jocelyn and helping them navigate the situation.”
She later met with Bloomfield, who was portrayed in the Times story as broadly complicit in Friedman’s behavior.
“I found her willingness to take responsibility, mixed with her ability to put her finger on how she was feeling about it during such an insane time really powerful,” MacKay says. After their conversation, she ultimately agreed not only to continue to represent White Gold, but also to take on a few other restaurants in the Friedman/Bloomfield empire: Salvation Taco, The Spotted Pig, Tosca, and The Hearth & Hound. She also agreed to represent Bloomfield herself.
For legal reasons, MacKay couldn’t comment on whether the restaurants were still financially involved with Friedman, or even unpack her feelings about representing the places he helped to build. “My allegiances are to April, Erika, and Jocelyn, and all the good people who work for them,” she says. “An unfortunate side-effect of a system [where] white men and their money are often necessary for women to build businesses of scale is that there are white men with money around.”
She adds, “Until women and people of color have more economic opportunity, these white men matter. I don’t think the way forward is for all women around [Friedman] to go down.”
The vast majority of the publicists I interviewed said they wouldn’t be willing to take on, or continue to represent, a client who’d been accused of sexual harassment. “We would suggest that they work with a crisis management firm,” says Sue Chan, the founder of Care of Chan in New York. “It’s not our expertise.” She emphasized the distinction between the kind of PR she does and crisis management, the latter of which is specifically built to handle ethically dicey situations such as harassment, mainly due to their expertise in litigation.
For Crystal Wang, a partner at Bolster Media based in New York, harassment is the line that cannot be crossed. “We do not tolerate an atmosphere where there was even light joking when it comes to sexual harassment,” she says. “If something like that were to happen, we’d [address] it, which would likely mean no longer working with that client.”
Katsnelson recently represented restaurateur Charlie Hallowell, even after accusations of sexual harassment appeared against him in an extensive piece in the San Francisco Chronicle last December. She points out that she was not hired to defend him, but to help promote his new projects.
“My reaction [to the accusations] was great disappointment,” she admits. “I was surprised. I am aware that he is a complex person with many credits to his name in terms of what he has done for the community. My job was to let the actual reporting happen, but to provide a broader and accurate picture.”
In cases like Hallowell’s, Katsnelson believes that the picture is often a lot more complicated than the one the media paints, and that those types of reports alone are not enough to convince her to sever ties with a client. “I want to give my client as fair a shake as they can have,” she says. “It is not my role to judge them.”
It’s also unfair, in a way, to conflate journalistic standards with those of publicists, because in the latter case, there is a business arrangement involved. Chefs pay publicists to represent and defend them, and if a firm declined to do so for ethical reasons, there’s always going to be another firm to choose from in the marketplace. As a publicist, saying no to representing an accused harasser in order to prevent them from continued positive media attention is a somewhat naïve and futile end game. If you won’t represent a Besh or a Batali, someone will.
“If two PR companies are charging the same rate and someone says they won’t help you if you’re accused, and the other says they will, who would you pick?” says Anderson. “There’s no reason not to pick the one that will help you if shit goes down. These firms are trying to keep their doors open. I don’t envy that position.”
III. Closest to The Fire, Bound to Get Burned
The trope of the chef sleeping with his publicist is a tired one. Suggesting it’s inevitable is both a disservice to chefs who aren’t total creeps and out of step with a more progressive reality.
And yet, to talk only of PR companies’ part in promoting troublesome clients overlooks a larger issue that exists on the murky edges of the industry: the harassment of publicists themselves. PR is a career that traditionally attracts young women, many of whom are fresh out of college and without experience in recognizing workplace harassment. Telling someone’s story to the world is an intimate exercise, and firms often encourage employees to develop close relationships with clients; employees regularly go to alcohol-fueled events for work.
“A chef put his hands up one of our employee’s skirts at an event and the next day we separated,” says Vachon. There have been a few instances where she and Ayotte have let go of clients who were inappropriate. “We have zero tolerance. No amount of money is worth our team’s well-being.”
Jen Pelka, who runs Magnum PR in San Francisco, recalled a pitch meeting with a potential client who owns a number of high-profile restaurants in the Bay Area. “He referred to the size of his penis and talked about having sex with employees at the restaurant,” she says. “He was a high-paying client, but we were obviously not working with him. He was flabbergasted. A couple months later, a big story came out about [him].”
The harassment isn’t always sexual in nature. Chan remembers a client who made her employees feel like “indentured servants.” “We were being abused,” she says. “It was one of my favorite restaurants in the city, but the work was suffering. It was becoming a huge stress on me and my team. They mistreated our employees. They did not understand our boundaries, and that this was a partnership.”
Jennifer Baum, who owns Bullfrog + Baum based in New York, has stopped working with several clients over the years. “I have made mistakes where in my gut I knew I shouldn’t work with someone, and I realize pretty quickly they are not treating my team properly.”
In one incident, she recalls, “my team went to a meeting with a brand new client and came back so rattled that one of them was crying. They were apparently berated and treated horribly. I called the client and said I didn’t think we were the right fit, and that I would be returning his first month’s check.”
What’s surprising is that in light of the abuse that takes place, many firms don’t have proactive harassment guidelines — particularly those related to sexual harassment — to prevent these situations from happening in the first place. A lot of publicists referred to their rules as “unspoken,” and while reporting this story, it wasn’t uncommon to encounter confused pauses or chuckles from publicists when I used the word “protocol.”
But a few have already begun to take official steps to tackle the issue with preventative measures. At Baltz & Company in New York, for example, President Phillip Baltz is considering an anonymous reporting protocol for employees, as well as sexual harassment training from third-party experts. At Bolster Media, Wang instituted a weekly “temperature check in” with team members on client relationships. She and a few others interviewed also said they strongly advise their team to avoid alcohol at work-related events.
Magnum PR went as far as to hire an employment attorney to create an official handbook that clearly outlines harassment, and walks employees through specific reporting procedures. Pelka has even extended this practice over to her clients, encouraging them to institute harassment training and provide their employees with handbooks similar to hers. “We have a problem of abuse of power,” she says. “The restaurant industry is unusual in that there are a lot of events, people cooped up in a small space, and a lot of alcohol flowing. One of the big issues is people not reporting and companies not having handbooks.”
Chan and several others acknowledged that there is more that they could be doing to officially protect their employees, but so many PR firms like hers are small and lack infrastructure.
“We're a young company, and didn't realize that client conduct would require an official protocol,” she says. “Do I think we need one? Often times, yeah. It's something we're more mindful of now. We are still figuring those things out, but our employees have always come first."
IV. Arbiters of Taste, Arbiters of Justice
As the industry’s deep-seated culture of harassment has become its participants’ uncomfortable responsibility to rebuild, the forces around them have begun to attempt to do their part.
Eater, for example, no longer includes restaurants run by alleged assaulters on its guides or maps, or as subjects of reviews. Critics debate the scope of their job. Diners consider the ethics of boycotts, and cooks weigh opportunity against reputation. The James Beard Awards Committee sent out a memo to its judges instructing them to only consider chefs and restaurants that promote “values of respect, transparency, diversity, sustainability, and equality.” (There was no mention, however, of stripping the accused of their numerous honors.)
Publicists have begun to wonder if they should hold themselves to the same standards, and actively use their position as a means to better restaurant culture.
“It’s something I had never thought of prior to Weinstein,” says MacKay, who increasingly views her job as a way to tackle issues of intolerance. “If this issue hasn’t touched you in a way that makes you reflect deeply about what you do, that’s a problem.”
“I’ve found myself in a position to be a defender,” she continues. “I want to empower people to be honest about who they are, and to help create a space for them to step into that feels as authentic as possible.”
Publicists, she believes, stand to shift restaurant culture in a positive direction. “A lot of people in the industry like to talk about publicists like it’s a dirty word, but they really do have a big role to play in all of this. They have power in terms of who they are shining a light on, and it’s important to make conscious choices around that.” Press coverage has a tangible financial impact. “Investing in women and minorities is a huge part of this, and it’s connected to press attention.”
Chan agrees. The PR industry is a particularly powerful apparatus, she says, because it is so dominated by women. “If there were more women in power in Hollywood,” she says, “the culture would change. Same thing in food. We have to be the ones to declare that this is a problem that needs to be changed.”
In an industry so badly in need of evolution, publicists have long considered themselves the behind-the-scenes arbiters of taste; but in an industry so badly in need of evolution, now, perhaps, they have an opportunity to become arbiters of justice, using their firepower to propel only the most progressive voices into the spotlight.
To MacKay, that means being a champion of queer women’s rights. To Ayotte and Vachon, it’s about putting their heads down and focusing on their existing clients. “We don’t have any offenders on our client list,” Ayotte says. “While everything is blowing up, we are going to stay in line and keep putting out stories.”
For others, like Chan, that intention has to go an extra step.
“When we are evaluating a client,” she says, “we ask ourselves: do these people hold the same values that we do? Do they have sustainable business practices? Do they care about where their food comes from? Do they respect their employees? We only pursue clients with the same ethics that we have.”
“We urge our clients to have a voice,” she adds, “but we should have a voice, too.”