06/06/2014 05:55 pm ET Updated Aug 06, 2014

Pizza Hut's Mining Effort for Social Responsibility

The marketing calendars of most big brands are fairly uniform: launch a few new products, develop a mobile app, engage fans socially, follow your Corporate Social Responsibility touchpoints, and then take a few weeks off over the holiday.

Wash, rinse, and repeat next year. Yawn.

But what about the days, weeks and sometimes months in between these marketing peaks? It's often the valleys and how brands react to moments in time that can make or break a year. And sometimes it's the simplest, quickest, and oftentimes quietest gesture that makes the most noise.

That's what caught my eye from Pizza Hut last week. I came across a blurb from the local FOX affiliate in Honolulu, KHON2, reporting the return of fireworks to the Pearl Harbor military base due to corporate funding from Pizza Hut.

Apparently, last year military budget cuts put to rest similar activities across the country. The Pearl Harbor fireworks cancellation made headlines, for obvious reasons. While we tend to have short memories, Pearl Harbor was the 9/11 of our parents' generation. Thus, enter Pizza Hut, no ham nor sausage, stepping in to save the day and fund the show this year. They'll also serve free pizza, which always helps.

But it got me thinking: How did Pizza Hut go about inserting themselves into this story and how do they walk the fine line between being self-serving and simply doing something good for a community the restaurant chain serves?

"It felt like the right thing to do," said Doug Terfehr, Pizza Hut's head of Public Relations and CSR. "We saw the news last year that Pearl Harbor was losing its fireworks show to budget cuts, and it just didn't feel right. We tried to save it, but ran out of time. This year, we knew we had to help them bring it back."

But why was Terfehr and his team, by chance, monitoring news in Hawaii? Apparently, it's far from an accident.

Each day he gathers a group that includes his PR team and several colleagues inside Pizza Hut's global headquarters in Plano, Texas, to mine for stories that just might bear some connectivity to the the brand in some form or fashion.

"We include team members from operations, social media, store development, HR and even IT," he said. "We touch the lives of millions of people every day, in many different ways. It's important for us to challenge all departments. What are we missing? Where can we make a difference?"

But activating around relatively vague concepts has a cost, which means Terfehr must show a level of ROI, regardless of the "feel good" nature of the deed.

"We definitely have to pick our opportunities to engage, but we don't let that keep us from doing something that we feel strongly about," says Terfehr.

And those opportunities have stretched beyond Pearl Harbor.

This past February, Pizza Hut came to the rescue of West Chester University student Jack Lavery who hit a half-court shot as part of a halftime contest during one of the school's basketball games. The kid went crazy, the crowd went nuts, and Lavery instantly became the most popular kid on campus because the shot won him $10,000. Only it didn't. A technicality kept Lavery from cashing in and the school would not budge, resulting in social and traditional media backlash.

The story came up in one of Terfehr's daily meetings, and they decided to act quickly by reaching out to Lavery on Twitter and offering him $10,000, which he accepted, of course.

And while the marketers love it, oftentimes the C-Suite does not. However, in the Lavery case, a quick Google search will validate it from an ROI perspective, at least as it's measured in the PR space. Media ate it up.

But they aren't all mass media home runs. In March, the company was made aware of a waitress at one of its restaurants in Michigan who donated all of her tips over two days to help save a local animal shelter. Upon learning about it, Pizza Hut reached out to the local store to not only recognize the employee for what she was doing, but also to match her donation to the shelter ($504.25), as well as to give her double the amount in tips she earned on those two days (another $1,008.50). That effort didn't get national news, but it made its rounds within the company and the local community. A big win for a franchise organization.

All of this mining for socially responsible brand matches done by Terfehr and his team brings us back to Independence Day.

Pizza Hut and Pearl Harbor-Hickam formalized their partnership last week. No ads, no press release, no disclosure of terms, but there will be fireworks on the fourth.