October 24, 2009
On Easter Sunday in a small mountain town, the intentionally playful actions of two employees quickly became a worldwide marketing nightmare for a large company franchise. A slow workday at Domino’s Pizza in Conover, N.C. prompted this duo to create videos showing a male sticking cheese up his nose and then putting it on a sandwich that was to be delivered to a customer. His cohort also filmed him partaking in other unsanitary acts with the food and uploaded the videos to YouTube.
Tim McIntyre, vice president, communications, and the rest of the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Domino’s corporate team were suddenly thrown into a tailspin when they received word from a consumer affairs blog, The Consumerist, that its staff had discovered and posted these videos on the Internet — where they instantly went viral.
Here, McIntyre, a PRSA member, tells Domino’s side of the story and takes us through the step-by-step process of the crisis — from his initial reactions to the videos to the way that Domino’s implemented its crisis communication plan. He also speaks of the media’s criticism of Domino’s during the first 24 hours, provides advice to others who may find themselves in similar situations and explains what he learned about crisis management and social media from this experience.
On his reaction when first finding out about the videos:
My first reaction when I saw it was anger. I was angry because I love this place, I love this brand, I love the franchisees that I work with. And I took it personally — that it was a personal affront to everything that I’ve come to know about this company in the past 24 years. But my immediate reaction was to send the link to a couple of core people — our social media people, our head of security, senior management — to say, “This has been posted, we need to do something about it. Let’s begin.” There were a few of us on this immediate response team, and we channeled anger into action.
Instinct told us that it was a hoax, that [these employees] wouldn’t be that stupid to do something real and put it on YouTube. But we were alerted to [the videos] by a Web site that decided, in the public interest, to post it on their Web site as well as on YouTube, and made us aware of it within 45 minutes of the video being posted. And after we looked at it we thought, “You know what, this is a bad one — they’re in uniform, they’re in the store. We need to do something about it.” So we immediately captured the video, and made stills of their faces. We distributed them nationwide to our internal network, asking if anybody could identify them. So that took place within two hours of the video being posted.
On creating a game plan and deciding what to do first:
Some savvy readers of The Consumerist were able to pinpoint where this store was located. I got an e-mail from one of the readers who’d narrowed it down to the store in North Carolina, and we were able to confirm the store by 11 p.m. This all happened on a Monday, and think about this town — it’s a small town in North Carolina. It was Easter Sunday; it was about five or six o’clock. There weren’t any orders coming into the store at that particular time. They were just bored. The phones weren’t ringing, which is why we now know that the food never reached consumers. We went back through the computer system and saw that there had been no orders taking place at the time that this video had been shot. We didn’t know that at the time. So first thing Tuesday morning, we had identified the people and contacted the independent store owner, the health department and the local police, because we were taking this seriously.
Meanwhile, we were communicating internally that we had found [the perpetrators]. We were also communicating with The Consumerist. We were communicating [with] the most relevant audiences at the time. By the end of the workday on Tuesday, the views on YouTube, thanks to links from The Consumerist and other Web sites, had reached about 250,000.
On how much of the crisis management plan was already in place, and launching a social media component during the crisis:
Tuesday evening at about 7:30, our social media team, who had been monitoring this, said, “There’s starting to be some chatter on Twitter.” The initial chatter was, “Oh, my gosh. Look at this horrible thing.” We started communicating on Twitter, saying, “Yeah, we know. Domino’s has found them. It’s a hoax.” But most of the chatter on Twitter was less about the actual video and more about “Does Domino’s know this? What is Domino’s doing about it? How come they’re not talking to anybody?” Well, we were talking to the people who were in the core audience from the beginning.
We had a social media team that had been assembled about a month before, and they were working on a strategy to launch us more into the social media realm. They were building a plan to introduce Domino’s to Facebook, to Twitter and to some of the other relevant social media sites.
So it was already in place. We didn’t want to just jump in without a strategy. We wanted to do it right. So the irony for us was that we had a plan and we were going to implement it only a week later, so we ended up having to jump in [during] a crisis, which was the opposite of how we wanted to do it. And our timing was off by a week.
On creating a YouTube response instead of distributing a press release:
This was the week after Easter Sunday, so a lot of leadership was on vacation with their families. By Wednesday afternoon, Patrick Doyle, the president of our company, had flown back from Florida. He’d been briefed. We had been talking to our senior leadership this whole time via telephone, via text messages, via e-mail. Our CEO, our president, the head of communications — everybody — was aware of this and what we were doing about it. And by midday Wednesday, the YouTube post had hit 1 million views.
On Wednesday, we learned that Domino’s as a search word had surpassed Paris Hilton for the first time ever. So that got mainstream media’s attention. We were still communicating to YouTube, communicating to these other Web sites, communicating via Twitter. And even at a million views, we were thinking, “This is fast, but there are 307 million people in America. There are a lot of people who don’t know about it; let’s focus on talking to the audience that’s talking to us.”
On selecting the target audience for a response:
We put [the response] on the Domino’s site as well, but our target audience was YouTube. For the first 24 hours, we were doing a lot of work on this. For the company, the main thing was identifying the individuals, contacting customers, making sure that nobody [received] tainted food — to make sure that there was no honest-to-goodness crime committed. In the meantime, we were working with the police, saying, “We want them charged with a crime because there’s visual evidence, and they claim on the video that they’re going to feed this to somebody.”
On criticism from the media during the first 24 hours:
We wanted to make that point, and we wanted to make it strong, that we don’t tolerate this. If these were teenagers, we would have been treating this differently. But these were two people in their 30s. It’s just mind-boggling to us. So you post a video on YouTube featuring the president of an iconic brand within 48 hours of a hoax video being posted by two idiots. And the [criticism] of this has been amazing to me — because on one hand, we’re lauded for doing something unprecedented, something that had never been done before [posting only a YouTube response]. And yet, we didn’t do it fast enough. And yet nobody has been able to answer: How can you do something that’s never been done before, but not fast enough?
On characterizing the speed of Domino’s response and if Domino’s was fairly criticized for its efforts during that time:
Some of the criticism is warranted. It’s easy to sit back from a distance and judge somebody, especially when you don’t know everything. A lot of people who were criticizing Domino’s, in my opinion, in those 24 hours, were doing it to make a name for themselves. They were looking for their own ink. They were looking for their own spots on TV.
I wouldn’t say we flopped in the first 24 hours, because in the first 24 hours we communicated to our entire U.S. franchise system. We found the [employees who created the video], we fired them, we turned them over to the police, we had the health department in [the store].
But the answer is, you can only make a judgment based on what you know at the time. Let’s say I did an interview or we promoted something on ABC, NBC and CBS, and we got a ton of airtime on those three networks. But if your favorite network is FOX and we’re not on there, you would think that we weren’t communicating anything. But if we weren’t communicating in the medium that you choose as your source, you could either say that we were doing a great job or we were doing a poor job. If you were a reader of The Consumerist, you would think that we were doing a great job. But if you were a reader on Twitter on Tuesday night, you would think that we were doing a bad job.
On public perception of and interest in the case — and the advice that Domino’s received from others:
There was somebody who said if she was counseling Domino’s, she would counsel us to pull our advertising for three months. Now, we’re a retail brand. Pizza is a highly competitive industry. It’s a top-of-mind, indulgent, spur-of-the-moment choice for many people. The last thing we would have ever done is pulled our advertising. And our perspective is that the more you behave as if things are normal, the quicker you are going to return to normalcy. We are a 49-year-old iconic American brand, and we’ve got 8,700 stores in 60 countries around the world. We’ve been doing this for a long time. We make more than a million deliveries a day. So for us to pull our advertising and hide because this happened was the worst advice I’d ever heard.
I kept making the point that Domino’s did not do this. This was done to us. And we’re fixing the problem. What happened in those first 48 hours, from our perspective, is that the story changed. The story took on almost five parts. The first story line was: Somebody’s tainting food at Domino’s. Then it became: Somebody posted a hoax video starring Domino’s. Then it became: What is Domino’s doing about it? Then it became the critique of how Domino’s handled these rogue employees. And today, the story is: How do brands protect themselves and their reputations in the YouTube era?
And that happened in 48 hours. There is a segment of the population that believes everything they see on the Internet, which is kind of sad. But most people said, “Oh, this is gross,” but recognized it for what it was, which was a hoax. But that visceral reaction is, “Oh, my God. I’m never eating at Domino’s again.” Or “I’m never eating at a fast-food restaurant again.” And then you’ve got people [saying], “Oh, it happens all the time.”
On how the Internet and social media platforms have changed crisis communications:
You mean the anti-social media platforms? The thing that I learned during this process was that even in the old days, say, last year [laughs], you could handle a situation, put out a fire. You could put it out, make sure that everybody was safe, determine the cause of the fire and then tell people everything. We found the cause of the fire, we put it out, we figured out a way to prevent it, and here’s what we’ve learned. Now it’s as if there’s an audience out there.
If there’s a crisis or an issue — I don’t even want to call it a crisis, but that’s probably the best word. If there’s a crisis happening in the social media realm, or if there’s a fire in the social media realm, there’s a segment of the population that wants you to put on a microphone and a webcam and describe what you’re doing as you’re doing it. They want you to describe how you’re putting out the fire. And that’s an interesting phenomenon.
On what Domino’s could have done better in the first 24 hours:
Two things we didn’t anticipate. The first thing we didn’t anticipate was the pass-along value, or the pass-along nature of this particular video, because there was a lot of “Man, you ought to see this going on.” And the sheer explosion of interest from the traditional media. In fact, the writer for USA Today who contacted me first sent me an e-mail. The body of the e-mail said, “This is the e-mail you did not want. Please call me.” And that’s when I knew that we were going to be accelerated and we needed to take a more aggressive stance about reinforcing the message that we didn’t do this; this was done to us.
On what measurement tools Domino’s uses to track crisis management efforts:
We’ve got this chart that shows the online buzz and chatter about Domino’s every day, and it goes up when we launch new products or we roll out a new advertising campaign. But during this first week when this happened, awareness and chatter about Domino’s just spiked. It was unprecedented. But then 24 hours later, bang! It fell right back down to normal levels. There was an incredible spike. People looked at it, heard about the story, made their comments and went on. And did we feel the after effects for a while? Yes.
On if Domino’s is doing more outreach now to listen to its customers than before:
Absolutely. Once this thing started to fizzle, it gave our social media team the opportunity to launch its program on schedule. That first week, we had to jump into Twitter and Facebook because of this crisis. But once it began to subside, we entered that space in the way that we wanted to. We’re talking about new products, we’re addressing issues, we’re using this to answer consumer questions — to promote new products, to invite people to check out our online ordering, to check out all of this different stuff. And then when things happen, we’re aware of them.
A lot of our senior management now has Twitter feeds. We created and filled a social media specialist position here, who’s based in Ann Arbor, Mich. And his job is to be the eyes and the ears of Domino’s in the social media space — not as a result of this crisis, but because it was already planned. And that’s doing some good stuff for us. People are talking about us more. A lot of the initial reaction when we launched on Twitter came from people who said, “Hey, glad you’re here. It’s about time.” So in any crisis, one of the things that I teach in crisis communication to franchise owners is that crisis management begins in the preparation stage.
On Domino’s advice to others:
Don’t panic. In our business, what do we do? We make food that people like, and we deliver it to their homes. That’s the foundation of what we do. Pizza is universal. Everybody likes it. In any kind of crisis situation, there are inevitably going to be people around you who are panicking. It could be leadership, it could be your peers, it could be your customers. But as the communication leader, it can’t be you. You can’t panic.
The other thing that I would counsel people on is to do as much as you can to quickly address the multiple sides of an issue. Nothing is ever black and white. You can’t just take a hard line. If anybody believes that there is a notebook or a manual that you can pull off the shelf and say, “When X happens, do Y,” then they’re deluding themselves. I don’t buy books like that, because everything happens within its own context. And you have to look at everything in its context. Sometimes your job is to share the context. And for us, one of the messages that I’ve been saying over and over again is, Domino’s did not do this. We own 8,700 stores in 60 countries around the world. We deliver a million times a day. This is not how we do business. When people understand context, they look at things differently.
On what Domino’s learned about crisis management and social media, and how its approach has changed:
The other lesson that we’ve learned is that you might not need the fire hose to put out the candle, but in the social media realm, you might want to have the garden hose handy. Somebody equated Domino’s in the first 24 hours to a grocery store that had 30 aisles — and there was a spill in aisle five. They didn’t need to mop the whole floor because there was a spill in aisle five. I loved that analogy.
What was happening, though, is that as we were cleaning up the spill in aisle five, it was leaking to aisles six and seven and four and three. So if anything like this were to happen again and there was a spill in aisle five, I would rope off two aisles to the right and two aisles to the left, and that would be our audience. That would include responding on our Web site a little bit faster, hitting the Twitter community a little bit faster and talking to senior leadership a little bit faster.
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