Domino’s Employee Prank Turns Into PR Crisis

Social media has it’s positives and negatives.  This story shows how quickly things can get out of hand with the rise of social media and how to use social media to combat the negatives:

Issue Date: Daily ‘Dog – April 17, 2009

Domino’s Employee Prank Escalates Into PR Crisis: Video Creates Sanitation-Related Issues Company Must Play Down

When two Domino’s Pizza employees filmed a prank in the restaurant’s kitchen, they decided to post it online. In a few days, thanks to the power of social media, they ended up with felony charges, more than a million disgusted viewers, and a major company facing a public relations crisis. In videos posted on YouTube and elsewhere this week, a Domino’s employee in North Carolina prepared sandwiches for delivery while putting cheese up his nose, nasal mucus on the sandwiches, and violating other health-code standards while a fellow employee provided narration. The two were charged with delivering prohibited foods, the NY Times reports.

By Wednesday afternoon, the video had been viewed more than a million times on YouTube. References to it were in five of the 12 results on the first page of Google search for “Dominos,” and discussions about Domino’s had spread throughout Twitter . As Domino’s is realizing, social media has the reach and speed to turn tiny incidents into marketing crises, reports Times writer Stephanie Clifford .

Other companies have been burned recently by social-media escapades: In November, Motrin posted an ad suggesting that carrying babies in slings was a painful new fad. Unhappy mothers posted Twitter complaints about it, and bloggers followed; within days, Motrin had removed the ad and apologized.

Last week, apologized for a “ham-fisted” error after Twitter members complained that the sales rankings for gay and lesbian books seemed to have disappeared — and, since Amazon took more than a day to respond, the social-media world criticized it for being uncommunicative.

According to Domino’s, the employees told executives that they had never actually delivered the tainted food. Still, Domino’s fired the two employees on Tuesday, and they were in the custody of the police department on Wednesday evening, facing felony charges.

But the crisis was not over for Domino’s. “We got blindsided by two idiots with a video camera and an awful idea,” said a Domino’s spokesman, Tim McIntyre , who added that the company was preparing a civil lawsuit. “Even people who’ve been with us as loyal customers for 10, 15, 20 years, people are second-guessing their relationship with Domino’s, and that’s not fair,” he told the Times .

In just a few days, Domino’s reputation was damaged. The perception of its quality among consumers went from positive to negative since Monday, according to the research firm YouGov , which holds online surveys of about 1,000 consumers every day regarding hundreds of brands.

“It’s graphic enough in the video, and it’s created enough of a stir, that it gives people a little bit of pause,” Ted Marzilli , global managing director for YouGov’s BrandIndex, told the Times .

The Domino’s experience “is a nightmare,” said Paul Gallagher , managing director and a head of the United States crisis practice at the public relations firm Burson-Marsteller . “It’s the toughest situation for a company to face in terms of a digital crisis,” he told the Times .

As the company learned about the video on Tuesday, McIntyre told the Times , executives decided not to respond aggressively, hoping the controversy would quiet down. “What we missed was the perpetual mushroom effect of viral sensations,” he said.

In social media, “if you think it’s not going to spread, that’s when it gets bigger,” Scott Hoffman , the chief marketing officer of the social-media marketing firm Lotame , told the Times . “We realized that when many of the comments and questions in Twitter were, ‘What is Domino’s doing about it,'” McIntyre said. “Well, we were doing and saying things, but they weren’t being covered in Twitter.”

By Wednesday afternoon, Domino’s had created a Twitter account, @dpzinfo, to address the comments, and it had presented its chief executive in a video on YouTube by evening. “It elevated to a point where just responding isn’t good enough,” McIntyre said.