In general, begging is a tactic that PR folks tend to frown upon
But when Nick Sarillo, CEO of Nick's Pizza & Pub, sent an email pleading for customers to help keep the doors open at his two Chicagoland restaurants, customers didn't just respond. They rallied.
"We doubled our sales in each restaurant for the first week and stayed at a 75 percent increase for a couple of weeks," Sarillo told Crain's Chicago Business.
So what gives? If begging, or at least pleading, isn't a worthwhile PR tactic—Sarillo's publicity staff and his bank tried to talk him out of sending the email—why did this work? Gerald Baron, a blogger and principal at Agincourt Strategies, says it comes down to one word: authenticity.
"It was real," he says. "It was not a 'strategy' as we tend to understand it."
A genuine plea
Last fall, Nick's was in deep trouble. In Sarillo's email, he says, "we overbuilt and overspent," and he blames himself for "the bad decisions that got us into this mess." He gives percentages for sales drops at his Elgin, Ill., restaurant and states, "We are going to run out of cash to pay our vendors and team members over the next couple of weeks and will have to close."
Tripp Frohlichstein of MediaMasters Training says Sarillo's direct, honest approach was "classy and smart."
"As a media trainer, it is amazing to see so many clients who realize that being honest about a situation is easier than evasion or deception," he says. "The realization that you can't always please everyone is very important in sticking to this approach."
Drew Mendelson of Mendelson Communications says being straight with customers is vital to having a profitable business, but he notes that Sarillo's approach won't work for everyone.
"What Sarillo did probably works better for a privately held business that doesn't have to answer to stockholders who might panic at the news and drive stock prices down," he says. "It also would probably have worked better if he made his announcement earlier, before things got so dire."
Mendelson says a message like Sarillo's has to come from a CEO or, if the CEO isn't the most personable executive, someone else in upper management. "The message has to be personal," he says.
Likewise, Mendelson says he doesn't view Sarillo's approach as begging.
"Sarillo wasn't asking for charity. He was being honest. His business was beset by today's mediocre economy and by the unforeseen problems of road construction."
Forming a bond
Sarillo's plea and the customer response to it—within minutes of sending his email, customers started a Facebook page to save the restaurants—proves that the customer/business relationship is changing, Baron says.
"They are in one sense becoming more like families," he says. "With the Internet and social media, an ongoing conversation is much more feasible."
Over the years, Nick's built an email list of 16,000 frequent diners through a program offering discounts. Clearly, the restaurants had loyal customers. That's imperative, Baron says. Customers have to place a high value on the existence of the business.
"When they have that relationship, the customers want the business to succeed," he says. "Clearly, Nick's customers wanted it to succeed, and so a big part of the success was the strong relationship the chain had developed with its customers."
Can it be replicated?
Seeing Sarillo's story reminded Baron of a warning you often see in car commercials: "Professional driver on closed course. Do not attempt."
Jonathan Bernstein of Bernstein Crisis Management puts it this way: "It has to be this extreme a situation, and that related communication must superbly transmit humility and honesty, which then elicits compassion and support."
That means Sarillo can't go to this well again, Mendelson says. "You can only cry wolf so many times before people stop listening."
The strategy wouldn't even work if customers found out the situation wasn't as dire as was initially stated. "What would be worse than sending this out and then the customers finding out that actually there was another way out of the problem?" Baron asks.
Frohlichstein says he worries that Sarillo's example may lead to a scenario where these sorts of pleas don't work, even if they are honestly stated.
"This might open up a new market for con artists. If that happens, then this particular technique will no longer be valid."
Matt Wilson is a staff writer for Ragan.com.