Inside Atlanta PR

You might say Melissa Libby wrote the book on Atlanta Restaurant PR

Melissa Libby was debating which major to declare at the University of Georgia and became skeptical of her ability to get a job if she chose English, even though she knew she loved to write. So she selected journalism instead, but when she took her first class in PR with a “fabulous” professor, she knew that would be her career.

“I never dreamed I’d have my own PR firm with such great people and such great work,” she said Monday in between conference calls. In September, Melissa Libby & Associates will celebrate its 20th anniversary.

Melissa Libby

Though clients today include Aria, Fifth Group Restaurants, JCT Kitchen, Marlow’s Tavern and Woodfire Grill, Melissa certainly never thought she’d be focused on restaurant PR when she landed her first job as an assistant in the PR department of the Hyatt Regency in downtown Atlanta. Nor did it seem logical seven years later when she left as PR director at the Hyatt Ravinia to be PR director of the Swissotel at Lenox (now The Westin).

When business had slowed down at the Ravinia, her boss gave her permission to do freelance work. After printing business cards, she landed her first client: Michael Tuohy at his then hot new restaurant, Chefs’ Café at the High Museum. So in the face of a recession in 1992 when Swissotel eliminated her job, she was ready to go on her own full-time. quickly landing Robert Mondavi wines and Guest Quarters Suites as clients.

“Looking back, I probably should have focused on restaurants, but at the time, there were not any restaurant-only PR firms,” she said. (There are perhaps a dozen in Atlanta today.) “I would have skipped the funeral homes and IT companies.”

One day over drinks with Rick Gove, another Atlanta PR pro, they were each lamenting how they had clients that weren’t in their sweet spots. So Melissa traded Rick her business-to-business accounts and he gave her his business-to-consumer accounts.

In the beginning, it was all about media placement. Then in 2001, she published a cookbook, “Atlanta Cooks,” though that was not her original intention.

“We were really frustrated that Atlanta had all these great restaurants but the national media wouldn’t include any of them in their ‘best’ lists. So we were going to gather some recipes and put them in homemade cookbook and send to the media. But then we decided if we were going to do that, we should do photos, then we said we should make it look nice and add color photos. Then we thought if we were going through all this trouble, we should bind it, then we decided to make it a hardcover edition and then we said if we are going to spend so much time, we should sell it.”

She sold 10,000 copies, following it up five years later with “Atlanta Cooks at Home,” which focused on chefs’ free time and what they do at home. She sold another 10,000 copies, some of which are still available in stores and websites.

Today, her eight full-time employees spend much of their time on social media. “It’s a perfect way for the restaurant industry to communicate with their costumers,” she said. “When you think about where you are going to go out to eat, you either go online, talk to friend and get a word-of-mouth recommendation. Social media works really well for that. It’s immediate, social, fun and emulates conversation with friends.”

The LaGrange, Ga., native lives in Collier Hills with her golden retriever and enjoys long runs in her spare time, having completed nine marathons. She is famous for having driven Julia Child around Atlanta one day and complying with her request to go through the drive-thru at McDonald’s. Julia ordered a hamburger, shake and fries … french fries, of course.

“I love the restaurant industry,” Melissa says. “The people in this business are creative, hard-working, hospitable … they love serving people. I joke that some people have to talk about serious matters with the media. I have to explain the newest cocktail trend or St. Patrick’s Day gimmick. At a cocktail party, I’ve always got something new and fun to talk about!”

– Chris Schroder

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