Pizza Hut stunt gets the wrong kind of buzz

The chain’s ‘sausage or pepperoni?’ promotion raises eyebrows and withers quickly, proving this isn’t how PR should make headlines.

Perhaps you’ve seen that Visa commercial in which a little girl asks Ray Lewis questions during a press conference like, “Toast or home fries?” and “Do you like my dress?”

It’s one of my favorite commercials, because (a) I totally want to interview an NFL player (cough, Tom Brady, cough) and ask silly questions, and (b) it’s about time someone had fun with these guys instead of being armchair quarterbacks.

Along the same lines, this week Pizza Hut offered one person a lifetime supply of pizzas if, during the presidential debate, he or she asked President Obama or Mitt Romney which they preferred on pizza: sausage or pepperoni.

Admittedly probably not the best place for a branded question, but a pizza every week for 30 years? Who doesn’t want to win that?

OK, let’s get real: All the debate questions are screened so that one never would have made it to the televised event, but it certainly has a lot of people talking about something other than health care and women’s rights and tax cuts and deficits.

Perhaps we need a little levity as we approach the elections. I still think it would have been ridiculously funny (though not very smart) if President Obama had come out on stage, placed an empty chair behind the podium, and said, “Talk to that.”

But I digress.

Is all publicity good?

As quickly as the Pizza Hut campaign began, it ended.

Kurt Kane, its chief marketing officer said: “Some of the attention we received was not positive. So, we decided the question was better served online than in the debate itself.”

Communications professionals, including someone I admire and respect deeply—Katie Delahaye Paine—are up in arms.

And why shouldn’t we be? Not all publicity is good.

Sure, everyone from bloggers to Stephen Colbert are talking about it—but not in a good way.

Yet Forbes contributor Aaron Perlut said the campaign was “brilliant” and called for more PR pros to use creativity like this instead of executing campaigns that require “bullpens full of interns emailing news releases that are not, in fact, news, or calling and leaving scripted voicemails for reporters that do little more than irritate the recipient.”

I don’t disagree.

Lose the battle and the war?

He goes on to say:

“I sincerely hope more practitioners take a cue from the likes of Pizza Hut, go against the grain of the typical PR playbook, and consider how the brand squarely centered itself inside of a lively debate—with millions and millions of eyeballs focused on it, providing great visibility and a healthy topping of buzz.

Otherwise, PR will continue losing these battles, and ultimately, the war.”

Like Perlut, I cut my teeth on reputation management and big-brand crisis communication. I also don’t lean toward PR stunts for either of those types of programs.

But losing the battle—and ultimately the war—because we don’t tend to be as creative as advertising agencies?

If we lose the war, it won’t be because we aren’t creative. It will be because we still have bullpens of interns distributing news releases and because we don’t use technology to increase the tools in our toolboxes and measure our efforts against real business goals.

Whether this hurts Pizza Hut’s sales remains to be seen, but you can bet that its PR chief, Doug Terfehr, knows exactly what he’s doing—creative or not.

Gini Dietrich is founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich.

(Image via)

Topics: PR

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