Gini Dietrich

Will Lack of Creativity Be the Demise of the PR Industry?

By: Gini Dietrich | October 22, 2012 | 

Have you seen that Visa commercial where the little girl asks Ray Lewis questions during a press conference, such as, “Hashbrowns 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 have fun with these guys instead of being armchair quarterbacks.

Along the same lines, last week, Pizza Hut offered one person a lifetime supply of pizzas if, during the Presidential debate, they asked President Obama or Mitt Romney if they preferred 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, and let’s be real, all of the questions are vetted so it never would have made it to the televised event, but it certainly has everyone talking about something other than healthcare and women’s rights and tax returns and whether or not our President is a citizen.

Perhaps we need a little levity as we approach the elections. I still think it would have been ridiculously funny (though maybe 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, their 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.”

And communications professionals, including someone I admire and respect deeply – KD 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.

And yet, Forbes contributor, Aaron Perlut, called the campaign “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 communications. 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 or not this hurts the sales at Pizza Hut is yet to be seen. But you can bet their PR chief, Doug Terfehr, knows exactly what he’s doing – creative or not.

A version of this first appeared on Ragan.


This Wednesday, October 24, join Mark Story for a Livefyre Q&A to discuss his book, “Starting Your Career as a Social Media Manager.”

He’ll be live from 12-1 ET so set a reminder and then come hang out in the comments to ask him questions about love, life, and his book.

About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro.

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121 responses to “Will Lack of Creativity Be the Demise of the PR Industry?”

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  2. KenMueller says:

    Again it all comes down to getting outside of our label boxes. We are no longer confined to one silo, and our jobs require creativity as we understand that we are more than PR or communications or marketing. We are all of the above.
    And I’d pay to see you ask Tom Brady questions. What would you ask? I’m just not confident he could come up with a coherent answer.

  3. Erin F. says:

    I’m all for creativity, but the creative work has to make sense and be relevant to business goals. Why put all that effort into something that isn’t going to bring a good return?

    • ginidietrich says:

      @Erin F. So what do you think about what Pizza Hut did?

      • Erin F. says:

        @ginidietrich The idea seemed sound, but Pizza Hut chose the wrong setting. It seems like someone would have thought about that component before going live with the idea.

        • ginidietrich says:

          @Erin F. I’m on the fence about it. I’m so tired of all the political BS and how polarized our country is, I think it would have added some very much-needed levity to the situation.

        • Erin F. says:

          @ginidietrich Perhaps. I’ve stayed out of most of it, mostly because I don’t have a television. Yay! No political ads.
          I guess I need more background on the Pizza Hut campaign before making a final decision. Who was going to be offended by the question? Matt says it was a loud, but vocal minority. It seems we pander too much to people simply because they’re louder than the rest.

  4. relevance says:

    RT @samfiorella: Will Lack of Creativity Be the Demise of the PR Industry? via @ginidietrich

  5. PROCKSTAR says:

    @benjaminfloyd That’s a good question. PR has so much influence.

  6. MattLaCasse says:

    I’m really not sure what’s not to like about the Pizza Hut move. I submit that if you aren’t fighting cancer or saving puppies, EVERY campaign is going to receive some kind of negative feedback. Why? Umm…just watch your Twitter or Facebook feed for 10 minutes. People LOVE to complain.
    If we’re constantly worried about the 3 people we may upset rather than the 97 who are laughing their butts off, we’ll never reach that creative potential. To piggyback on @ginidietrich , you can be creative AND provide a relevant news angle. How do I know? Well…Pizza Hut just did it.

    • ginidietrich says:

      @MattLaCasse I almost want to call Pizza Hut and say, “Ignore the very vocal minority!” But they took the campaign online instead of using it during last week’s campaign. It’s like Gap when they crowdsourced their logo, announced the winner, and then went back to the original logo because of the very vocal minority. Stay the course!
      How’s the sweet potato today?

  7. WendyShanahan says:

    @ginidietrich interesting

  8. belllindsay says:

    I’m always for the shake up rather than the safe and steady (i.e. boring). You can analyze and “market research” what Pizza Hut did to death – is it the right demographic, why bring pizza into politics, it’ll make the company look stoopid, it’s disrespectful to the POTUS (who I think would have laughed!) – but really, bottom line is you have to take some chances, and shake things up a bit sometimes. I love it (and I also love that Visa ad @ginidietrich ) . Think outside the box, rock the boat a bit, do something daring or different (but always plan ahead for any potential backlash) – but fer god’s sake do *something* creative!!

    • ginidietrich says:

      @belllindsay But it can’t always be a stunt. You can’t have a shake-up every month or even every year. I like this shake-up (and think it would have been hilarious if it’d made it on during the debates), but they won’t be able to do something big again for a while.

      • belllindsay says:

        @ginidietrich Absolutely – and that’s why the shake up really works – because it’s unexpected, and comes out of left field. My point I guess is for companies to not be terrified of trying something different.

  9. I love that little girl from the Visa commercial!  It would be great to stop watching sports reporters ask about the same three plays while starting conferences with “How do you feel about the loss today?” (Though I do love when a coach goes crazy after that question).  
    Playing devil’s advocate: The Pizza Hut stunt felt like a tactic without a strategy.  It didn’t even help Pizza Hut stand out from other companies in its industry and at best made people hungry for pizza in general and at worst made consumers feel that Pizza Hut doesn’t respect a core American democratic process. 
    As PR continues to evolve and grow creatively, it also has to be the bearers of strong strategy or good measurement.  Otherwise, we’re just going to turn into those advertisers selling creative in a void  because a Clio is more important than meeting real goals.

    • ginidietrich says:

      @HeatherTweedy Mmmmmm…pizza. There were a lot of PR pros who said they didn’t respect the democratic process. But their PR guy is SUPER strategic so I’m not sure I agree they didn’t have a strategy behind it. We were just talking about the Kenneth Cole gaffe and how their sales increased after it. Like that, this is the kind of stunt you can only do once. My guess is they sold more pizzas. But they just used their one trump card.

    • magriebler says:

      @HeatherTweedy Well said. I was baffled by the Pizza Hut stunt. It didn’t feel original; it felt derivative. (Was I the only person who thought of “boxers and briefs?”) It made me wonder, once again, why we so often confuse creativity with being disrespectful and silly.
      What works about the Visa commercial, on the other hand, is that it feels consistent with the brand experience. Visa can take you places; it makes dreams come true. You are so delighted for that little girl when the player praises her questions that you just want to kiss your Visa card. Score! That’s creativity.

  10. bradmarley says:

    We employ bullpens of interns to send out media releases and leave templated voicemail because it is safe.
    We all have grand visions for creative campaigns, but the negative coverage a company like Pizza Hut receives for trying something different (albeit, misguided) causes us to retreat to the warm comfort of the traditional PR blanket.
    The larger the company, the harder it is (in my opinion) to gain permission to go out on a creative limb.

    • ginidietrich says:

      @bradmarley Totally agree! Business leaders are scared about the very vocal web. The thing about this (and the Gap logo mishap I mention below) is it’s always a vocal MINORITY. If you ask the majority of your customers, a) they don’t care and b) they just want a good product.

      • bradmarley says:

        @ginidietrich Exactly. And the rise of social media has given a voice to the minority. Your CEO might not want to invest in social, but they sure do pay attention to it.

  11. What? You didn’t want to write about Felix Baumgartner and Red Bull? <scurries away>

  12. stevenmcoyle says:

    I wonder if Pizza Hut was victim to something I call the “viral strategy mishap”; where a company does something creatively drastic in hopes of sparking a positive viral campaign but instead starts a negative one. One day people will learn to stop saying “We need this to go viral.”
    Also, I think sometimes it’s better to stick to your guns than to retreat. Complainers are always louder than admirers. Take for instance the new Lifetime logo, which nearly everyone thought was hideous. They didn’t pull a Gap and change it back, they stuck to it. I wasn’t going to stop watching Lifetime or buying Gap because of a logo. I doubt the most known pizza chain in America was going to take a big sales hit because of this debate fiasco.

  13. maryanneconlin says:

    Seems like this is leading into a discussion of “what is PR?”  Which, with the proliferation of screens, the rise of social media and the demise of print… seems to be coming  pretty frequently these days. We have positive relationships with other agencies with whom we work on a single account more because we tend to not get too hung up on what is social media/what is promotion/what is PR. I THINK creative PR is doing something to raise the visibility of the brand – the execution might not look like a PR tactic…but the role of the PR professional is in developing the idea…often because PR travels in those circles that offer those opportunities.

  14. There is a culture of fear and uncertainty that keeps many people/businesses from being willing to do more than walk between two narrow lines. No one gets fired for running ads in the NYT or WSJ, but spend that money elsewhere and unless you can demonstrate ROI you might get slapped.
    Every now and then someone is wiling to take a risk and if their “gamble” works they receive oodles of praise.
    It is not just PR, it is in many industries and it is worrisome.

    • ginidietrich says:

      @Josh/ We face that in our business all the time. No one ever gets fired for hiring the big PR firm with the years of experience and a fancy office on Michigan Avenue. But hire a boutique agency and they screw up? You lose your job, too. No one gets fired if the big agency screws up. It’s frustrating when you’re in charge of biz dev.

  15. I actually liked the Pizza Hut stunt. Maybe it’s because I live in Florida and am so tired of the election and all of the ads right now. 🙂 I didn’t really see it as disrespectful. In fact, I kind of thought it might humanize both candidates to find out what type of pizza they like best! You’re right, it never would have made it into the debate anyway, but it’s still disappointing that they fell to pressure and pulled the campaign.

  16. JasKeller1 says:

    So there are a lot of different arguments taking place in this post, and some I agree with, and some might be a little misguided. 
    First off, risk: Yes, it is a problem within our industry and there are a lot more campaigns out there that “play not to lose” instead of “playing to win.” 
    Second, a lack of creativity: Yes, there is a lack of creativity that goes into many PR campaigns out there. I wouldn’t necessarily say that all (or that many at all) are poor PR campaigns are cause by the work being executed by interns cold calling and submitting crappy press releases. I feel like one of the biggest hindrances is actually over-vetting ideas and the group think that is a product of excessive approvals and reviews.
    Third, advertising more creative? Hardly. Many PR campaigns are executed with less budget and more barriers, so I would argue you need to be pretty damn creative to break through the clutter. Advertising has the advantage of selling “reach” as their key value-add which enables them a larger paid audience – which is different than being more creative. (not to say there aren’t a ton of brilliant people and campaigns in advertising – just that it isn’t apples to apples). 
    …so when it comes to Pizza Hut, yes, they took a risk, which I commend to a certain degree. No, I don’t think it was successful; I think it was a commercialization attempt of a presidential election which has already been battered by over-politicization and a lack of integrity. That said, I’m glad we’re talking about it. I think there is a lot to learn from the points you’ve put forward.

    • @JasKeller1 , love your third point.
      This may sound counterintuitive, but boundaries can be a great driver of creativity. Boundaries like (1) a strategy that hits the right emotional buttons (2) a competitor that’s has taken the more obvious approach (3) a low budget that forces you to dig deep down for ideas. 
      In the ad agency world I used to run into creative people who wanted their assignments to be easy. One of best creative thinkers I ever ran across was Jerry Andelin, who was Hal Riney’s partner. His favorite saying was: “If it were easy, anyone could do it.”

      • JasKeller1 says:

        @barrettrossie Not counter-intuitive at all! I was going to write more about the reality that PR is just hard these days… but I was already exceeding the character-count most attention spans can handle. 😉

      • Erin F. says:

        @barrettrossie  @JasKeller1 I agree. Boundaries can drive creativity.
        I don’t understand people who want assignments to be easy.

      • RebeccaTodd says:

        @barrettrossie  @JasKeller1 Hmmm…Barrett, I’m beginning to think you had the same “objections to opportunities” sales training as I did…or maybe you are just a Pollyanna, like me.

        • @RebeccaTodd  We were treated to an objection handling course at The Martin Agency. Changing objections to opportunities was the best part. That’s why no one wins political arguments with me. 

        • RebeccaTodd says:

          @barrettrossie Yes- the instant I can get people to be honest about their objections is the instant I know I have them hooked. Get that zing! feeling every time. Textbook example last week, and the outcome couldn’t have been better.

    • ginidietrich says:

      @JasKeller1 I wrote last week about the overuse of the news release and how, sometimes, it would just be better to release your news on Twitter in 140 characters. I say this for the very reason in your second point. News releases are so overly vetted and overly reviewed and edited that they’re not longer news. It makes me batty!

    • maryanneconlin says:

      @JasKeller1 I think that risk has its place in any marketing plan. I had a boss once who told me to always have a portfolio approach to planning – some programs should be safe, some should be risky and some in between…a lot like stock investing, I think 🙂

  17. […] usual, when reading Gini Dietrich’s latest post, I started thinking about the topic (in this case, whether creativity is lacking in PR) and veered […]

  18. RebeccaTodd says:

    Ahh once again I will be disagreeing with @ginidietrich and @belllindsay .  Honestly, I find the American electoral process ridiculous enough without product placement.  While I would have loved to see someone go rogue and ask a real question during the debates, encouraging people to toss away a real opportunity for a branding opportunity is really terrible. Whatever the PR strategy behind this is, in practice this is insulting, even to a Canadian. I want to say something brilliant about the commoditization of politics, but I haven’t had enough coffee.

    • ginidietrich says:

      @RebeccaTodd  I’m so sick and tired of the election and the debate and the binders full of women that I would just love a little bit of levity. So what if the person asked it and then got to ask the real question? It would have made people laugh and the person would have gotten a lifetime supply of pizza (and gotten fat, too).

      • RebeccaTodd says:

        @ginidietrich I would have rather them go off script and ask something real, like tell me more about your polygamist grandpa, Mitt, or maybe what the heck is Mitt short for, anyway, Mitten? Because that’s what I have been going with.

        • ginidietrich says:

          @RebeccaTodd But then you’d have a whole lot of people pissed off. I was raised Mormon and one of the biggest misconceptions of the religion is polygamy. Pizza – sausage or pepperoni – isn’t religious or political or anything else that can get people fired up for their beliefs.

        • RebeccaTodd says:

          @ginidietrich Ahh see I would like to see a little more pot-stirring. And wouldn’t it be better for Mitt to be able to honestly address the whole polygamy thing? But you know me G I am all about getting people fired up. To me, this is getting close to the coca-colonization of politics.  Tonight’s debate- brought to you by Shienhardt Wigs!

        • stevenmcoyle says:

          @RebeccaTodd  I’ve been trying to figure what Mitt is short for forever. I need to see a birth certificated. lol

        • HowieG says:

          @stevenmcoyle  @RebeccaTodd Mitt is short for Mittsy

      • Erin F. says:

        @ginidietrich  @RebeccaTodd It seems like we elect someone, then start the entire process as soon as that person has been elected. Maybe some boundaries should be exacted upon the whole thing.

      • JasKeller1 says:

        @ginidietrich  I guess that was a frustration point for me with this post – There are a lot of real issues that don’t have a voice, so when a non-issue gets coverage (or meddles in an arena of real issues)… it is hard for me not to view that with some disdain. 
        Maybe the debates have been so devalued by politicking that “real issues” no longer have a place in presidential debates – they are now reserved for hyperbole and “fundamental beliefs”…I suppose I just wish the time presidential candidates spent in front of millions of people could be used better to drive awareness about issues that those millions of people could impact in positive ways.

        • ginidietrich says:

          @JasKeller1 I understand that, but it’s a continuation of blog posts that are covered here every day. As much as I would love to write 4,000 words outlining an argument in every blog post, it’s just not something people will read. So we continue the discussion day after day. As to the comment about the bullpens full of interns, I took that from the Forbes article as the “reason” the PR industry might lose the battle and the war.

        • ginidietrich says:

          @JasKeller1 I understand that, but it’s a continuation of blog posts that are covered here every day. As much as I would love to write 4,000 words outlining an argument in every blog post, it’s just not something people will read. So we continue the discussion day after day. As to the comment about the bullpens full of interns, I took that from the Forbes article as the “reason” the PR industry might lose the battle and the war.

        • ginidietrich says:

          @JasKeller1 You’re frustrated that I wrote about an issue that derived from a PR stunt Pizza Hut pulled and that I think it might have added some levity to the debate if it had been asked?

        • ginidietrich says:

          @JasKeller1 You’re frustrated that I wrote about the PR stunt Pizza Hut pulled? Or that they did it at all?

    • magriebler says:

      @RebeccaTodd  @ginidietrich  @belllindsay I must be Canadian at heart.

  19. I don’t know whether the Pizza Hut campaign was brilliant or a cheap stunt. I love my country and hate to see brands make a mockery made of our political process — our politicians do a good enough job of that already. But newsjacking is a time-honored marketing tradition, so… I just don’t know. 
    At the same time, I’d be shocked to see this hurt Pizza Hut in any way. 
    By the way: Here’s one of my favorite politically-incorrect commercials of all time, I never really thought about whether political exiles find it insulting. And I’m sure it didn’t help the product all that much.

  20. IglesiaPresents says:

    @RebeccaAmyTodd Makes me want pizza!

  21. HowieG says:

    I guess the reason I never heard of this campaign is because I never heard of Pizza Hut. What do they make? Definitely not pizza. 😉 I did not see the event as negative in my book.
    Your premise here is true. PR has to get creative. Especially today when some of message control is gone..if not a big chunk of that.

    • joshchandler says:

      @HowieG Most people I talk to think that PR serves the purpose of facilitating a conversation, rather than being the creative force behind a marketing message. Perhaps that’s the wrong way to think, but maybe we need some clear distinction between the purpose of creative marketing and the role of PR within a business.

    • ginidietrich says:

      @HowieG Mmmmmm…I love Pizza Hut breadsticks. Yum.

  22. imeanwhat says:

    @tedcoine @ginidietrich no it’s all the mediocrity and lack of reference in the new breed. PR has become the replacement for waiters jobs.

  23. jonbuscall says:

    @ginidietrich So how do we realistically promote creativity? Inhouse or outsourced?

  24. […] friend Gini Dietrich had a post on Spin Sucks about creativity in public relations yesterday. She raises a great point about how creativity is a fantastic thing; but if we […]

  25. kateupdates says:

    Oh man wish I could have jumped into this convo sooner!
    Besides the fact that if I won the pizza, I could not eat it … I think this idea is fun! Why not capitalize on current events that everyone is buzzing about? Yes, it wasn’t something other brands were doing but that’s where some of the most original and buzz-catching campaigns often come from.
    I didn’t see the campaign but it sounds like it could be done tastefully (pun intended.) And after all the talk of women being uncomfortable with some of the debates (blah) because of how intense they were and since it seems like the President has a lighthearted side, I’m sure the candidates would welcome a lighter question. Although, I imagine Mrs. Obama would have something to say about either option 🙂

  26. joshchandler says:

    In my opinion, the PR playbook was torn up years ago. There is no traditional PR anymore. It’s just a lot of businesses trying to figure out how the heck the new marketing tools work.
    I also think that Pizza Hut was an established player who had wide enough scope and reach to run with this idea. The amount of small businesses that try to capitalize on the same event such as the presidential debates often fail because they simply don’t have the reach.

    • kateupdates says:

      @joshchandler I agree with THIS response 😉

    • ginidietrich says:

      @joshchandler I wish that were true. But there are many, many, many organizations still wanting traditional PR and not wanting to take the “risk” to participate online in any way. We turn away at least five prospects a month because all they want a PR firm to do is media relations. When we explain that’s not what we do, they go on to find someone who does.

  27. […] friends at the excellent Spin Sucks blog asked a pointed question earlier this […]

  28. […] friend Gini Dietrich had a post on Spin Sucks about creativity in public relations yesterday. She raises a great point about how creativity is a fantastic thing; but if we […]

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