ANALYSIS: Client Profile - Pizza Hut rises to all PR challengesFrom special crusts to commercial busts, Pizza Hut has had ampleopportunity to come up with as many recipes for PR as they have forpizza.

Pizza Hut's PR department will never forget July 4, 1993, but

perhaps for the wrong reasons. Magnet Communications in New York had

organized a summer-long promotion of the Bigfoot Pizza that involved

flying a blimp carrying the Bigfoot logo to 19 cities around the


With the fair weather and almost no one at work, Magnet, not

unreasonably, expected to see the blimp float graciously in front of

several million New Yorkers on Independence Day.

It was not to be. Somewhere north of 54th Street, the blimp's rudder

system malfunctioned and punctured the skin of the ship, which then

started descending rapidly, spinning out of control. The pilots managed

to crash-land on the roof of an apartment building at 410 West 53rd

Street, scattering the astonished sun worshippers who had gathered there

with picnics. No one was seriously hurt.

Independence Day is, of course, always one of the slowest news days, and

was even slower that year because it fell on a Sunday. Thus, the Pizza

Hut blimp crash instantly became front page news. "The story just

ballooned from there, no pun intended. It was insane," remembers Chris

Dobens, chief cultural officer at Magnet Communications, then known as

Creamer Dickson Basford. To make matters worse, the client was in town

that day, Dobens said. A crisis communications center was set up to deal

with the mania. "We were getting calls from Japanese newspapers," says


Victories and defeats

Over the last 10 years, Pizza Hut's PR activity has been rocky but never

dull. It's seen some spectacular successes, such as the time when it

delivered a free pizza to everyone in the country named after its rival

Domino, or last year when it sponsored the launch of a rocket from

Kazakhstan to the International Space Station.

More recently, however, it's seen some unfortunate stumbles. In April,

for instance, it issued a press release touting a TV commercial starring

Carmen Electra and Marie Osmond, for its new Heated Twisted Crust


The ad has never aired. "We had production problems with it,"admits

Pizza Hut's PR director, Patty Sullivan.

While the non-appearance of the Electra-Osmond spot may not have been

noticed by consumers, it came on the heels of Pizza Hut's defeat in a

complicated lawsuit - and an ugly publicity battle - it brought against

its most hated rival, Papa John's.

The fight had its genesis in the spring of 1997, when Pizza Hut's

president stood on the deck of a World War II aircraft carrier and

declared "war" on "skimpy, low-quality pizza." The act was filmed as a

commercial by ad agency BBDO, and viewers were dared to find a better

pizza than Pizza Hut's.

Papa John's responded with a series of ads skewering Pizza Hut's

product, including one in which Papa John's CEO John Schnatter described

how his dough was made with "clear, filtered water" and yeast that was

given "several days to work its magic."

The dough was contrasted with that of "the biggest chain" (i.e. Pizza

Hut), which uses "whatever comes out of the tap" to make "frozen dough

or dough made the same day." The description was accompanied by the

image of a filthy faucet dripping water into a grungy-looking sink.

In August of 1998, Pizza Hut sued Papa John's in Dallas Federal District

Court, claiming the campaign and its tagline, "Better Ingredients.

Better Pizza," were false and misleading.

As the case progressed, it revealed some unappetizing, tough-to-spin

truths about the way pizzas are made at both chains. At Pizza Hut, for

instance, the tomato sauce sits for two months before being

"remanufactured" for use in restaurants (Papa John's sauce takes even

longer to arrive on the pie).

Pizza Hut won the initial trial, but lost an appeal to the US Supreme

Court in March of this year. Many newspapers ridiculed Pizza Hut for

bringing what was perhaps the most trivial case ever to the nation's

most venerable judicial body. The timing was bad because the verdict

came at the end of the judgement about the Florida election standoff

between Al Gore and George W. Bush.

Inevitably the pizza case was treated as a joke in the media. "Pepperoni

or chads on that?" editorialized the Chicago Sun-Times. "The hypocrisy

is breathtaking," noted The Washington Times, "Pizza Hut unabashedly

uses the slogan 'Best Pizzas Under One Roof.'"

Most media awarded a straightforward victory to Papa John's, and

Sullivan admits that Pizza Hut had a difficult time with the suit. Pizza

Hut lost the appeal on a technicality, rather than the substantive

issues, though the decision actually shows that the court did indeed

find Papa John's ads to be misleading. "My observation was that the

media didn't understand the case," Sullivan says. "Reporters got hung up

on their belief that this was all about a slogan versus an entire

advertising campaign."

Outside assistance

While Sullivan dealt with the legal fallout, she leant on her outside

agency to assist her with the company's staple messages: product


After Magnet and Pizza Hut parted company in 1997, it was replaced by

Ackermann Public Relations & Marketing in Nashville, TN and Dallas.

Ackermann was then replaced in 1999 by Pizza Hut's current project shop,

Edelman Public Relations in Dallas and Chicago. All agencies have

handled the client's new food stories, which come thick and fast -

that's partly a blessing and partly a problem.

On the upside, there's no shortage of stories to tell. This year,

Edelman has touted Stuffed Crust Pizza in addition to Twisted Crust

Breadstick Pizza, earning the interest of CNN and CNBC.

On the downside, the frenetic pace can lead to media fatigue. "We worked

with them about 18 months to two years, and we had at least three

product rollouts in that time," Ackermann's EVP, Cindy McConkey, says.

"At some point the media tends to go 'ho hum.'"

Nonetheless, the client expects its agencies to deliver high-level

placements on Rosie O'Donnell and The Late Show With David Letterman,

based on what is essentially pizza trivia.

McConkey did credit the company with having the good sense to let PR in

on the early stages of its marketing ideas, allowing for better

strategic planning. Edelman media supervisor Lori Schachtman declined to

comment on its work for Pizza Hut, and, oddly, Sullivan declined to

comment on Edelman's performance, although she says she's happy with the

media attention the company has received.

Overall, Pizza Hut operates from a position of strength. With great

brand recognition, it remains far and away No. 1 in its category. The

firm's sales were dollars 5 billion in 2000.

However, sales have been flat for the last year while rivals such as

Papa John's have grown from dollars 1.2 billion to dollars 1.7 billion

from 1998-2000.

It's a sticky position that makes promotions nail-bitingly crucial.

A cynic might suggest that Pizza Hut would do quite well to organize

another blimp crash. As Magnet's Dobens says, "I was duly

impressed ...

You can't buy that publicity. I mean, the return on investment was



Director of PR: Patty Sullivan

Associate PR manager: Julie Hildebrand

Outside agency: Edelman Public Relations (projects)

Budget: dollars 500,000 a year

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in