What Domino's Did Right -- and Wrong -- in Squelching Hubbub over YouTube Video

Pizza Purveyor Faulted for Waiting to Respond but Did Well in the End

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CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- Just how much damage two hooligans can do with a video camera is still unknown. But when the dust finally settles on Domino's Boogergate, it seems likely the pizza chain will be given credit for an effective, if somewhat sluggish, response. And the resulting public-relations crisis can be a valuable learning experience for marketers of every stripe.

"This is obviously a horrible story and every marketer's nightmare," said Rob Weisberg, VP-multimedia marketing at Domino's. "It's amazing to me that somebody in this day and age would think, 'Hey, I can do that and get away with it.'"

In case you were under a rock last week, here's what happened: Two employees at the pizza chain uploaded a video to YouTube of one of them in a Domino's store and in a Domino's uniform sticking cheese up his nose and then putting it on a sandwich that was purportedly going to be sold to a customer. Other stomach-turning acts were also recorded for posterity.

Domino's was on top of the situation within about 48 hours -- too long, according to some. The offending video received nearly 1 million views before it was taken down, which already represented significant damage to the brand.

Mr. Weisberg said his company was influenced by the experiences of JetBlue and Motrin. JetBlue was faced with a PR disaster in 2007 when a snowstorm forced flight cancellations, and travelers were stranded in airports and even on runways. Motrin marketer Johnson & Johnson pulled an ad following a firestorm generated by "mommy bloggers," many of whom had not seen the commercial. Domino's initial reasoning was that it didn't want to act too hastily and alert more consumers to the situation it was attempting to contain.

Catching fire
But there was little chance of containing the two-and-a-half-minute video from then-Domino's employees Kristy Hammonds and Michael Setzer. GoodAsYou.org posted the video first, and alerted Domino's to the situation. Interestingly, it was a viewer, not the marketer, who identified the offenders first. Amy Wilson, a Georgetown University graduate student, worked with boyfriend Jonathan Drake to identify the unseemly pair after spotting the story, which by then was on Consumerist.

Starting with a Jack in the Box sign visible from a window in the video, she and Mr. Drake, who analyzes satellite images for a nonprofit, used that and other clues to assemble a street view and began to search Google satellite images for locations that matched. Then Paris Miller, a Northern Kentucky computer consultant, traced one of Ms. Hammonds' friends to Conover, N.C. There he was able to find a Domino's near a Jack in the Box.

"I didn't even intend on doing this," Mr. Miller said. "I didn't know how big this was becoming." He credits another user with calling the location to confirm that the pair worked there. Mr. Drake contacted Tim McIntyre, Domino's VP-communications. The Consumerist trio will each get Domino's coupons roughly equivalent to a year of free food.

Mr. McIntyre was spearheading an internal effort that would ultimately include Mr. Weisberg; Patrick Doyle, president of Domino's USA; Joanne Owings, director of precision marketing; Stacie Barrett, manager of internal communications; and Phil Lozen, who works on the web-communications team. He began taking media calls Tuesday morning, the day after the first posting of the video, saying that while the pair would likely face criminal charges, Domino's was trying to respond in a way that didn't alert more people to the story.

That error was corrected later in the day, when the video reached 30,000 views and Mr. Weisberg concluded tougher measures would be necessary. The group decided against hiring an external crisis team and did not bring in its creative agency, Crispin Porter & Bogusky. The story eventually was carried by such outlets as NBC and The New York Times. According to RetweetRadar, however, Domino's never cracked the top handful of Twitter topics last week.

YouTube response
On Wednesday morning, Domino's decided a YouTube response would be necessary, Mr. Weisberg said. Mr. Doyle was featured in the video, saying rather woodenly, "We sincerely apologize for this incident. We thank members of the online community who quickly alerted us and allowed us to take immediate action. Although the individuals in question claim it's a hoax, we are taking this incredibly seriously." He adds in the video that the store where the videos were shot has been shut down and sanitized. The company, he says, is also conducting a wholesale review of hiring practices "to make sure that people like this don't make it into our stores."

The full implication of that statement became clearer when it was later revealed that Ms. Hammonds is a registered sex offender, which gave the story fresh media traction.

Domino's also opened a Twitter account to deal with consumer inquiries.

The Domino's apology video had gotten 330,000 views at press time. The original offending video had reached nearly 1 million views when it was taken down Wednesday evening. A copy now has more than 345,000 views.

Richard Levick, president of PR firm Levick Strategic Communications, said he'd give Domino's an F for the first 24 hours and an A or an A+ for everything thereafter.

"After the first 24 hours, they were largely textbook," he said. "They started a Twitter account, separated themselves from the villains, shut down the store, apologized, went to their demographic, went to YouTube -- I think all of that is great. People can take their stabs if they want, on every nuance of what Domino's has done, but after the first 24 hours, it's largely textbook." (While the video was posted on Monday night and the response from Domino's came on Wednesday, Mr. Levick is referring to the 24-hour period on Tuesday in which the public awaited a response.)

Textboook case
Both Mr. Levick and Brian Solis, a social-media expert and blogger at PR 2.0, agreed that the Domino's case will go down as a landmark event in crisis management. "This is a moment in time for all crisis communications," Mr. Solis said. "Domino's is always going to be aligned with the Motrin, Tylenol and Walmart cases as [marketers] look at how to better create crisis communications and how to create social-media programs. I think they did it pretty well." He added that working directly with reporters and bloggers in the early "flashpoints" likely staved off a broader brand crisis.

Mr. Weisberg said he doesn't quite understand why Domino's has been lambasted for a lack of social-media presence. After all, he said, the brand is on MySpace, Twitter, YouTube and most visibly on Facebook, with nearly 300,000 fans. Mr. Levick pointed out the most damning evidence: Domino's didn't spot the first few videos by Ms. Hammonds and Mr. Setzer. But the brand's social-media presence is about to get a bump.

"Anyone who doesn't know the Domino's brand has been on the dark side of the moon," Mr. Weisberg said, adding that his next mission will be to make the brand's social-media efforts just as well-known. The chain has also said that it may pursue a civil complaint against Ms. Hammonds and Mr. Setzer.

Internet rogue's gallery

In the past few years, companies have found themselves caught up in online firestorms that sometimes jumped into the mainstream media, where the real damage begins.

-- Ken Wheaton

Taco Bell's rats High High
Domino's boogergate High High
Facebook changes terms of service High Moderate
Dunkin' Donuts/Rachel Ray wears kefiya High Moderate
Burger King employee bathes in sink Moderate Low
Motrin moms High Low
#amazonfail High None
SpongeBob SquareButt Moderate Low
Starbucks nipples on a mermaid Neglible Imaginary

Are you prepared?

Richard Levick, president of Levick Strategic Communications, isolates four steps every company should take to prepare for this kind of crisis.

1. Identify your crisis team: investor relations, government relations, public relations, crisis communications, outside lawyers, general counsel, digital communications, human resources, multimedia communications experts and an executive team.

2. Imagine your nightmare scenarios and prepare for them -- make sure you own all the search-engine-optimization keywords, and that lawyers who specialize in class-action suits against major companies don't.

3. Track the blogosphere and other social media. Be connected with the major players and be as responsive as possible.

4. Don't wait. Your response time is only 24 hours.

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