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
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
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
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