Wednesday, October 24

Making News: Pizza Hut Tries Presidential Publicity

Pizza Wars
Author and public relations professional Gini Dietrich wrote a great article about the publicity stunt gone sort of wrong for Pizza Hut last week. The pizza chain promised one person a lifetime of pizza if he or she asked President Obama or Mitt Romney whether they liked sausage or pepperoni.

When Pizza Hut received some push back, it decided to skip the publicity stunt and came up with something else instead. Inexplicably, this decision divided some public relations professionals and journalists. Some thought that stunt was brilliant. Some thought the stunt was stupid.

What surprisingly few people did was distinguish public relations from publicity.

Sure, publicity sometimes works as a public relations function. And sometimes it operates under the umbrella of marketing. Either way, the idea is basically the same. If you don't have news, make some.

The idea is lock step with some of the many stunts done by Edward Bernays, the man who is most often credited as the father of modern public relations. He advocated publicity stunts for all sorts of reasons (including making it less taboo for women to smoke in public), believing the news to be the very best carrier for any message.

Of course, public relations as a field (and many but not all practitioners) have grown up since the shift from propaganda to public relations. Specifically, it grew up when several professionals began to realize that public relations didn't have to rely on manipulation. It was much more effective when practiced with the organization and its publics in mind.

This, more than anything else, is the reason there was an insider kerfuffle over the stunt. Some praise it as creativity-minded public relations while others look as such cute or stupid stunts as diminishing the evolution of public relations as a management function. Honestly, the whole discussion is kind of silly. Except one thing.

Publicity that aims only for attention is a wasted effort. 

When employed by public relations, there is such a thing as good publicity and bad publicity. Most people, including myself on occasion, have a bad habit of evaluating stunts based on the measure of their creativity. The truth is that we ought to evaluate it based on its strategic substance.

What would Pizza Hut have gained had the stunt worked? Would it make you more inclined to buy their pizza or any pizza? Would have it have reinforced their brand or mission statement? Probably not.

Of all the pizza chains out there, Pizza Hut is the one that best exemplifies the shotgun approach to marketing and public relations. They mostly promote cheap pizza, big servings, limited time pizzas, exclusive sides, gimmick campaigns, crossover product offerings, world hunger, literacy, etc., etc. — more messages than toppings.

Pizza Hut doesn't always have marketing madness. Its communication tends to expand and contract. Two years ago, for example, it was winning with a tighter message. Right now, it has a loose message. The result? Domino's profit was up 18 percent in the third quarter. Pizza Hut sales grew too, by 6 percent.

Sure, there is no question it's still the leader, but it still struggles (as all big pizza brands do) against independents that continue to gain ground. Pizza Hut used to have an 18 percent market share. Nowadays, it's down to 15 percent in the United States as big chains continue to compete against each other based mostly on the price of their pies and gimmicks (while always hoping to shore up profits with side orders). Meanwhile, the independents have managed to capture 70 percent of the market.

All this information is just another way of saying that Pizza Hut (which I prefer in comparing the big three except when I have time for a tastier independent) wasted the effort on this publicity stunt because it didn't even reinforce the price point it actually competes on (despite all the noise). If they wanted a worthwhile campaign, maybe they ought to have "cut pizza pie deficit" instead of trying to make sausage and pepperoni a partisan issue. Or, if they wanted to serve themselves and the public, they could start talking about how gas prices must be killing their drivers and hurting pizza delivery.
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