Company: Domino's Pizza
Contact: Tim McIntyre, Vice-President, Communications
Location: Ann Arbor, Mich.
Industry: Food services
Annual revenue: $1,425,100,000
Number of employees: 10500
On April 13, 2009, the Domino's Pizza corporate office received a notice from Consumerist.com that it had just posted a video to its site that Domino's should know about. In the video, two Domino's store employees were seen joking around as they contaminated customer food orders with unsanitary stunts such as sticking cheese up their noses before adding it to a customer's sandwich.
It was a nightmare for Domino's and a reality shock for many corporations that now see just how quickly and easily the digital world can help turn respectable businesses into unsuspecting victims.
This case study details the actions Domino's took to regain control over the situation and preserve its reputation.
Domino's Pizza is the one of the world's leading pizza chains, with over 8,700 stores in more than 50 countries, with around 5,000 alone in the US, most of them franchised.
Over the past 49 years, the company has built a reputation as a trusted doorstep delivery business that supports the communities in which it resides.
"You call us up and invite us to your home; you trust us to make dinner for you; you invite us to your doorstep," explained Tim McIntyre, the company's vice-president of communications. "That's sacred to us, and that's why our people wear full uniforms. We want you to trust us when your doorbell rings."
The company has also built a fairly "well oiled machine" when it comes to dealing with various crisis situations that threaten to spoil that trust. "We have a great food distribution system, great suppliers, and great mechanisms in place in the event that we have to participate in a recall," McIntyre continued, also citing other examples of preparations the company makes and the actions it takes to respond to a range of plights, including the tomato scare in 2008.
Still, none of that prepared the company for what took place on the evening of April 12, 2009 (Easter Sunday), when two bored adult employees produced a video that showed one of them tainting supposed customer food orders with bodily fluids. They then posted the video to YouTube.
Domino's learned of the video after it had been posted to YouTube and several other sites, including The Consumerist, which was courteous enough to inform Domino's within an hour of its posting.
Over the next several days, Domino's took the following steps:
1. Identifying and taking action against the culprits
The company started by capturing digital images of the two employees' faces from the video and distributed a message to all US locations seeking help in identifying them by name. Upon confirming their identities and pinpointing the location, it then contacted the storeowner and requested that they be fired.
Having no way of knowing at the time whether the video was a hoax, the company contacted the Health Department and local police to file charges against the two culprits.
2. Getting the video removed
Simultaneously, the company's social media team immediately contacted YouTube to ask that the video be removed since it was in violation of several of the site's guidelines. YouTube responded that it would pull the video only at the copyright owner's request; it considered the woman who had filmed her coworker to be the rightful owner.
After identifying her from the digital stills, and minutes before she turned herself in three days after the filming, a company representative met the copyright owner and her lawyer on the steps of the local police department with a letter that authorized YouTube to remove the video. Under her lawyer's recommendation, she signed the letter.
3. Responding to public queries
Domino's decided it best not to go public with a press release or news conference right away. It knew that by making a public statement, anyone hearing of the issue for the first time would become intent on seeing the original video, thereby encouraging its spread.
Instead, it responded to those who approached the company about the story. It also communicated with those forums that had either posted the video or hosted conversations about the issue. In each case, it drove home that this was something done to the company, not something the company itself had done inappropriately.
Ultimately, it became clear that the buzz was starting to spread through chatter on Twitter, so the company responded with a posted statement on its website and by entering the conversation on Twitter and directing users to that post on its site.
Soon afterward, video views on YouTube grew to half a million.
4. Fighting fire with fire
Three days after the original incident, Domino's posted its own video to YouTube. The video, which used no script and was simply filmed using the Communication Department's flip camera, featured company president Patrick Doyle addressing the issue, calmly and sincerely venting his anger and reiterating how sacred the company holds its customers' trust.
In posting the video response, Domino's used the word "disgusting" in the video title—just as had been done with the original video—so that the new video would come up first when users searched for the original.
The company then posted links to its video on Twitter and on its Facebook page wall.
Within three hours of posting the company video response to YouTube, views of the original video surged to over one million. And for the first time ever, on that day only, search queries for keyword "Domino's" surpassed those for "Paris Hilton."
The company-posted video also quickly propelled the story into mainstream US news, then global media, starting with the BBC and working its way onto Chinese National Television, then Australia and Peru—markets where Domino's doesn't even have stores. A company analysis reckoned 60 million media impressions.
Nevertheless, although the company's video response triggered widespread awareness, it also served to change the story in the company's favor.
"On Monday, for the 100,000 people who first saw the [employee] video, the story was 'look at these disgusting people at Domino's.' Then it became 'what is Domino's doing about it?' When we posted our video, the story morphed into 'how can companies protect themselves in a YouTube world,' with Domino's cited as a company who is handling this crisis," McIntyre said.
Since then, the company has been contacted on multiple occasions by other organizations seeking advice on how to prepare themselves for similar crises.
That's not to say the company did not suffer a setback. "A lot of people got hurt those first couple weeks. [Franchisees'] sales suffered. We reported flat to slightly positive sales in the second quarter, but had this not happened we probably would have had more positive sales," said McIntyre.
Nonetheless, McIntyre reports that the company's stock price was not affected, and the chain received top honors in the annual American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) in May.
Line up your ducks ahead of time
Although every crisis is unique and no protocol will fit every occasion, it pays to follow the Boy Scout mantra and always be prepared, particularly in a world where social media and the Internet enable things to spiral at the speed of light.
It was fortunate for Domino's that it already had a social media team in place to respond as needed, and well-trained staff throughout the company able to quickly take up the tasks at hand. It was also advantageous that senior management had consented to trust its people to do what was right and not hold things up with boardroom-style meetings.
Perhaps most importantly, Domino's had already-established, deeply ingrained customer loyalties that worked to countermand consumer doubts even before the issue had been resolved.
"People will do a mental balancing act of 'here's this video, but here's my personal experience with this brand,' and 99% of them said, 'man, that's screwed up.' They saw it for what it was, that the target of derision should be these two people and not Domino's," McIntyre observed.
Do what you can to curb the propagation
By initially responding only within the forums where the story was already unleashed, Domino's was able to keep the issue somewhat manageable until it had a better understanding of what had happened and could begin taking steps to rectify the situation.
Even after the news hit mainstream, when Domino's had its story straight and was able to showcase itself as a company taking action, it turned down every request from the talk-show circuit to appear on television—a conscious refusal to have its president and brand featured alongside the original video, which of course would have to be shown to viewers. McIntyre said every outlet, although regretful, claimed to understand. CNN's Anderson Cooper decided to drop the story altogether rather than perpetuate the notoriety of the two ex-employees.
In the end, 60 million media impressions was certainly more than the company bargained for; however, in McIntyre's view, that was a dignified accomplishment in that 250 million or more of the remaining US population may never have heard about the video.
Be honest and state your case
Never try to hide that the incident occurred, however. As recent history shows, social media has a way of eventually bringing the story out, and it is better that the company be seen as forthright in its dealings.
Although Domino's sought to limit the conversation to the forums where it was already taking place, the company did respond to every incoming query. And it responded openly and truthfully, off the cuff, with criticism against the perpetrators and contending that it had been victimized—and always understanding that whatever was said would ultimately find its way into the public arena.
Plus, by issuing the video response detailing how it was handling the crisis, it avoided becoming "that company"—the one that doesn't understand social media and how to operate in the digital world. Instead, it became a model to follow.
Continue with 'business as usual'
Some around the country felt that suspending all advertising and lying low for a few months would have been the best action for Domino's to take under the circumstances. McIntyre disagreed wholeheartedly.
"We're a retail brand. Our product is indulgent and purchased spontaneously, so we need to remain top of mind. Our sales are driven by awareness, and we can't afford not to advertise," he responded to those who posed such a solution, before going on to remind them that the Domino's brand had been victimized and was not deserving of blame.
Rather than making a major change, the involved store was sanitized from top to bottom and quickly reopened for business; the company kept running its existing ads, with no mention of "we're sorry" or "please come back"; and the chain followed through with the planned launch of a new pasta menu just weeks later.
"Our perspective is that the more you behave as if things are normal, the quicker you are going to return to normalcy," McIntyre explained.
And that strategy has panned out. "We're almost back to normal. We're back to who we are, with a little more experience and understanding of how to handle things in this new universe," McIntyre concluded.
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See how another large firm handled crisis communications via social media in How Twitter Helped Ford Avoid a PR Disaster another case study available only to Premium members.