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April 22, 2009

A Pizza Hut PR Stunt Or a Social Media Blunder Waiting to Happen?

By Li Evans

Yummy-pizza To kick off the work week Twitter was all abuzz with news that Pizza Hut wanted to hire a summer intern to man their Twitter account. The story even made the New York Times. I really don't know what made me roll my eyes more, that the NY Times gave this obvious PR Stunt credibility or that the Vice President for marketing communications at Pizza Hut (Bob Kraut), actually stated "The successful applicant will speak fluent OMG and LOL and correctly use the terms DM (direct message), RT (retweet) and # (hashtag)." to make himself sound cool and hip.

For the record, if you tweeted DM it wouldn't work on Twitter, it's "D" for direct message, let alone they left out knowing how to reply to twitterers with the "@" symbol.

Tom Martin, who writes at Positive Disruption asked if this "Twiternship" was Ethical, its a very interesting look at the situation and a very thought provoking piece if you into marketing, PR and social media.  It kept me coming back to even more questions, beyond asking if this was just a PR Stunt to draw people away from the Domino's video fiasco.

You Seriously Want an Intern Handling Your International Brand on an International Stage?

Pizza Hut is not just a national brand, but an international one.  Twitter isn't just a U.S. based tool, its a world wide tool.  Now, stop and think.  Would any company be crazy enough to let an intern who doesn't know the inner workings of their global brand (carefully crafted messaging they've spent millions on) plan, prepare, run and speak at an international press event that launches your brand on an international stage?

No. That would be suicidal.

What Mr. Kraut fails to realize in his attempt to be cool and hip, is that while a college intern may know "OMG" and "LOL", they really know nothing about Pizza Hut and how to effectively handle a marketing strategy in the real world, in real time.  Just because they know how to text on their phone does not mean they should be the face of your international brand on an international platform.

Is This a Response to Domino's Video Fiasco?

What really kept popping into my mind was the timing of this all.  Domino's sure was getting a hell of a lot of press for those videos and their response to it from the corporate office. PizzaHut's timing on this was just really too coincidental.  Domino's was on the tip of every tongue because of these videos.  The videos even spawned hilarious responses.  Domino's had buzz, no matter how bad it was, it was buzz.

Pizza Hut had nothing until Monday, April 20th, with this Twitternship announcement.  Then things with them were all buzzing.  "Wow a summer internship to Twitter!"

The Domino's videos were posted right before Monday April 13th, 2009.  The videos were discovered and posted first by Good As You.  This site has some good documentation of what happened with this fiasco, too.  On Monday April 13th, is when Pizza Hut first started to Tweet.  Coincidence?  Maybe, but I find it really suspicious.

Pizza-hut-twitter Pizza Hut Really Doesn't Get Twitter, Do They?

So lets take a look at Pizza Hut and their Twitter use. Shall I say non-twitter use.They have someone twittering right now, who does seem to understand marketing, perhaps a little too well.  The messages are all about the promotions that Pizza Hut is involved with currently.  From their involvement with the new Terminator 4 movie due out in May, to John Lithgow's Two Big Dogs and now their "Twitternship".  This is more of a broadcast channel or electronic billboard they custom design with each marketing tweet.

Then look at who they are following.  14 Twitter accounts are being followed by the Pizza Hut Twitter account and most of them are corporate entities including Pizza Hut's parent lifetime partner company PepsiCo's Pepsi* (please see author correction below).  There's no real communication going on with this account with the 1200+ followers they have right now.  Accept for 2 replies to tweets asking about the internship, there's no "conversation" like companies like Zappos, Whole Foods or Southwest are having.  What about joining in on a conversation about Pizza, Pasta or healthy food?  What about asking people about their last experience at Pizza Hut?  Nope.... not there.  Call them clueless when it comes to Twitter.

Would Pizza Hut Do Better in Other Social Media Circles?

I also keep coming back to the thought, is Twitter the right place for Pizza Hut to focus their Social Media efforts?  Food is a very visual experience and it really affects your senses, particularly smell, taste and sight.  Twitter lacks the visual aspect, you just have text on a screen.  There's only so much you can do with 140 characters to explain your experience with a really good meal.

Videos & photos could be a much more successful outlet for Pizza Hut.  "Design Your Own Pizza Hut Pizza Contest" where fans of Pizza Hut could submit their videos of their own specialty pizza's to have to have a chance to have that pizza named after them and on every Pizza Hut menu across the globe - would likely be a whole lot more successful than a Twittern tweeting "OMG I just ate a whole deep dish pizza hut pizza!"

Just Like Partner Company Pepsi, Are They Confused By Where Their Audience is Really Hanging Out?

Just because it seems like everyone is hanging out on Twitter doesn't necessarily mean that's the reality, even if Oprah is here now.  Just because most average Americans like pizza, doesn't mean they are fans of Pizza Hut and are on Twitter.  When you think of it, most average Americans are rabid fans of those small pizza joints.  Just stop anyone on the street in a city and ask them where the best pizza is, likely the words won't be Pizza Hut, Dominos or Poppa John's.  That's not to say Pizza Hut doesn't have fans or a core audience, they do, I just have a hard time thinking they are hanging out on Twitter.

Unpacking the Pepsi 25Pepsico, Pizza Hut's parent lifetime partner company*, might have a little influence here.  Wanting to push its brands into social media because its the newest greatest thing in marketing.  Pepsico really is confused by where its audience hangs out, it launched a "social media" campaign wherein they had 25 top bloggers get a first glance at their new branding.  Problem is, a lot of these bloggers weren't Pepsi drinkers!  To quote one of the Pepsi 25, Mack Collier "(problem is, I'm a Dr Pepper lover). Aside from the fact that I'm not that fond of Pepsi,"  As Beth Harte points out, "Pepsi has fans clubs, one Google search and I located 2 online, why didn't Pepsi engage these evangelists in their social media efforts if they wanted buzz?"

At the end of the day though, I don't know what Pizza Hut's or Pepsico's internal workings are.  Although if I were on the inside I'd surely be scratching my head at this latest venture into Social Media.  To me it seems like old marketing ways trying to be pushed into the new media way of marketing.  I just don't see that Pizza Hut fully understand Social Media, quite the contrary to the individual Chicago Domino's owner who does understand it.

*author's note:  Pepsico use to own Pizza Hut but spun them off with Taco Bell, KFC and now A&W and Long John Silver's to form Yum Brands!, however the two companies are still very much intwined and have a lifetime contract with one another.


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First: Pizza Hut has not been a part of PepsiCo since 1997. Not to say that you can't compare the two companies social media strategies. But this makes a lot of your narrative awkward.

Second: Pizza Hut is not Following PepsiCo - found here http://twitter.com/pepsico - but the Pepsi brand. Which is a logical tie since they have exclusive beverage deal to serve Pepsi products.

I get your argument, but the lack of research dings the veracity of that argument.

- Bone

@Brady - yep you are right, they are two separate companies, was amending my post when you commented. However these two have a lifetime contract together and utilize "like" resources for promotional and marketing efforts at times. thanks for taking the time to point it out. my fault for thinking their lifetime contract together still means ownership.

Hi Li,

Thanks for your article on our new Twintern program. I appreciate your feedback and thoughts and have taken them all in to consideration.

I did want to point something out that seems to be causing confusion. The language in the NYTimes article for the job posting was an editorial take on the description and not our words. Please find the actual job description here: http://bit.ly/LbIFp. Tom Martin posted a correction to this topic on his site this morning.

Also, the Twintern will not be singlehandedly responsible for our interaction in the social media space - we'll leave that to our marketing experts. What they will be asked to do is chronicle their experience with us from an outside perspective and share that information in social media, including, but not limited to Twitter.

I agree with you on the point that we should get more actively engaged in coversations. That's something we're working on and hope that the Twintern can help us. Also, I agree that following just 14 people isn't enough. I'm open to suggestions here. Any recommendations?.

Like many brands, companies and organizations, this is a brave new world for us. I appreciate your patience and feedback as we figure it out.


Hey Chris,I'm really glad you reached out to me here on SMG. Saw that you gave Tom some great insights as well... I have a few additional questions.

1). I read the realease on PRWeekUS.com (http://www.prweekus.com/Pizza-Hut-Twintern-to-advance-PR-in-digital-strategy/article/131124). In it it states a few things that really make me wonder about Pizza Hut & it's foray into Social Media.

a) Is Pizza Hut really considering handing this Twitter account over to Pizza Hut's PR agency Zeon to handle after the Internship is done? If so, does Pizza Hut understand the repercussions of this move?

b) Your PR agency stated in the PRWeek article that Pizza Hut is trying to reach a college audience. Facebook is where that audience resides, because they don’t yet appreciate Twitter. How will your Twintern work within Twitter if the college age audience is not primarily there?

c) You’ve stated that for now it’s just really PR. So, I am curious if you are referring to PR as just media relations (i.e. pitching your social media concept of a “twintern” to get media attention) versus actually engaging all publics that might have interest in PH via online conversation.

d) Is Pizza Hut's social media efforts just a campaign, or will this be an ongoing social media implementation.

e) Will Pizza Hut be transparent about who Tweets for them, letting the audience know it's several people on the account?

While I read Tom's "correction" post, I don't feel he was wrong in questioning the ethics involved here. When this hit the NYTimes, most savvy marketers and experienced PR Folks know that this story about Pizza Hut's "Twiternship" was pitched to the media in such a way that it would get press. While somethings might have been taken out of context, Pizza Hut's agency was well aware of how it would be played. This truly did play more out as a PR Stunt, especially in light of how Pizza Hut as a whole has entered into the entire Social Media realm. Unfortunately, it really looks like Pizza Hut is relying on an agency who thinks Social Media is all about PR and how much buzz they can get for Pizza Hut, which isn't it at all.

Social media is all about conversations that lead to relationships that then lead to sales. Just like the local pizza shop owner, who works very hard at building conversations, learns his customers names, builds a trusted relationship, he gets referrals from them. That's what companies who come into this space need to understand that it's about conversations, not gimmicks to get articles in the press or links to sites that don't need links anymore.


A little late to the post. Great post and really good research. As you note, seems Pizza Hut's PR agency is a very good PR firm but has much to learn about SM.

Someone forgot to tell them that authenticity and transparency are rules 1 & 2 in the SM world. Try and pull the wool over SM'ers eyes and someone, somewhere will out you.

And thanks for the link over to my post, much appreciated.

You nailed it as usual, Li.

You care a lot about SM strategies and getting it right.

As an aside, Pizza Hut pizza tastes like booty (sorry, guys but I'm from philly and hometown pizza smokes franchise pizza every time. Shoutout to Vino's Pizza in Whitemarsh :-)

But, the irony is, I could see Pizza Hut having an AMAZING SM campaign if it is done right.

OMG, this has the potential to blow up at a level unseen since Starbucks handed out free coupons for coffee ... lol, this is going to be great!

Hi Li,

Thanks for your questions and interest in our Twintern announcement.

To answer your questions:
a) Our first priority is to listen to our customers and actively incorporate their feedback on how we communicate and connect with them. Right now, Pizza Hut is still testing things out when it comes to Twitter. We’re having ongoing conversations with our customers through all of Pizza Hut’s social media sites to find out what they want to hear and how our Twintern will best serve them. Our agency helps monitor conversations, which companies of all sizes should be doing in real-time. In addition, Pizza Hut is taking steps to actively participate in these conversations and the Twintern will play a valuable role in serving as a voice for our brand.
b) While social media, in particular Facebook, is an efficient way to connect with college students, we have a broad demographic (moms and families, for example) who may want to connect with us outside of Facebook. With a diverse, integrated Web presence, we’ll be able to meet our audience where they prefer to have their conversations. We have been successful on Facebook to date (with more than 944,000 fans: http://www.facebook.com/home.php#/PizzaHut?sid=2c0331a07a7bb48231c672c4d3c0fcd6&ref=search) and want to expand our communications efforts to other sites (e.g. Twitter) where dialogue around the brand is growing among all audiences.
c) As mentioned previously, connecting with our customers and listening to their feedback via social media is something we do believe in at Pizza Hut, which is why we are bringing an authentic voice on board to help with our social media efforts. We realize we still have much to learn about engaging customers in social media, which is also what attracts us to networks such as Twitter – the ability to learn and adapt in real-time to what people recommend and share with you. The communication goals are twofold – 1) giving people an engaging and fun way to find news and information from Pizza Hut, and 2) creating two-way relationships with our customers, built on trusted conversation.
d) We are building out our social media presence and recognize that it requires resources and time to participate in various networks and conversations. In these early stages of implementation on Twitter, we’re discovering what works best from both customer and corporate perspectives – listening to audience feedback and adjusting our communications based on that feedback. We don’t view it as a traditional campaign, but more of a larger Pizza Hut commitment to listen to our customers and provide value to the conversation.
e) We plan to always remain transparent about who is tweeting on behalf of our brand. Right now, it’s me.

If you do have additional questions, feel free to give me a call or connect with Pizza Hut on Twitter (via @ or DM). I appreciate the time you took to evaluate our efforts and will consider your feedback, as with all our customers, in how (and what) we communicate moving forward.


Chris, I don't think anyone was really questioning the validity of starting a twitter campaign, in fact I'm sure most web savvy folk think its a good idea. The question was why would you put an intern behind the helm of a marketing tool that has global reach? Does the intern understand your brand's goal?

Valid feedback, and I do see where you’re coming from. I actually just responded to Joseph Jaffe’s column in AdWeek who had similar doubts, and this is the one thing we’ve seen some criticism on in marketing blogs. The funny thing is, the target we were going after - college students - have only had positive things to say about the program. In fact, we received thousands of applicants for the position.

Our Twintern will absolutely not be given sole responsibility for maintaining our online voice. In developing this plan, we knew we wanted to have a strong presence on Twitter (and no, not because we’re simply intrigued by the recent mainstream capabilities of the technology – we began drafting our plan long before Oprah entered the Twittersphere) however, we wanted a person who could dedicate 100% of their time to communicating with our followers. Hiring a person who is truly excited about innovative technologies and can really connect with the Twitter audience, made logical sense. The person we select as our Twintern will be an integral part of our marketing team, however, he/she will not be the only person behind our social media strategy.

@ Chris Fuller: Thanks for clearing that up :)

This is a really nice post Li! I've been finding it amazing how much impact Twitter is having everywhere.

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