Picking Up Fallen Domino’s

As if dealing with a severe economic recession were not enough, corporate executives have a new scenario to keep them awake at night: rogue employees trashing their brand’s reputation through social media.

The victim last week was Domino’s Pizza. Two employees in Conover, N.C., videotaped an unsanitary prank in the restaurant’s kitchen and posted it on YouTube. By afternoon of April 15, the video had more than 1 million views. References to it topped a Google search for “Domino’s,” and Twitter was buzzing with related links and chatter. The brand’s quality reputation metrics took a nosedive. An article in USA Today aptly noted, “The video reflects some of the worst fears consumers have about food purchased from restaurants.”

It’s a PR nightmare at the warp speed of social media and it was inevitable. Reputations are made or massacred online. In fact, this is a reputation management issue we all face. I opened up the question online (via Facebook and Twitter) and invited colleagues and competitors to share their views via Peter Shankman’s HARO (Help a Reporter Out) network. The thinking is compiled here into buckets, and the sheer volume and quality of responses shows what a hot topic this is.

Megan Casserly of Weber Shandwick commented (via e-mail) that according to her agency’s recent study “Risky Business: Reputations Online” (in cooperation with the Economist Intelligent Unit), 67 percent of leading global executives believe their companies’ reputations are threatened in today’s economy. These executives cite employee sabotage and misdirected e-mails as among their greatest concerns.

All in all, opinions about the best courses of action (whether from a PR point of view or a consumer point of view) fit into six groups, all vital checkpoints for defending and enhancing reputation.

Be There Fast. Awareness and Presence: It’s vital for brands and corporations to be present where conversations are taking place (e.g., social media), so they can track, troubleshoot and respond quickly.

* A majority of leaders are out of touch with rogue employees online. Two-thirds (66 percent) of global executives are either unaware or do not want to admit that employees are badmouthing their companies online. Surprisingly, only one-third (34 percent) of executives worldwide say they know of an employee who posted something negative online about their company despite the ongoing prevalence of damaging digital chatter. –“Risky Business: Reputations Online,” Weber Shandwick, submitted by Megan Casserly, via e-mail.

* One thing Domino’s should have already done, before this happened, was establish a presence in social media. I noted in The New York Times story about the crisis, Domino’s had to quickly create a Twitter account to respond — in the meantime, precious hours and days were passing by. Its strategy of doing as little as possible in hopes the crisis would simply disappear didn’t take into account the incredible viral nature of issues like this on the Web. People were Tweeting their complaints and concerns and there was no response. Nothing gets people riled more than to believe they are being ignored. That just made matters exponentially worse. –Dan Collins, APR, ABC, PR professional, via e-mail.

How did Domino’s handle the situation? From where I sit, badly. [Domino’s spokesman Tim McIntyre said executives decided not to respond aggressively, hoping the controversy would quiet down. While the company had been made aware of the video by Monday evening via a blogger, it took them until Wednesday to get a Twitter account as well as a YouTube video of the CEO to respond to consumer concerns. –Ken Makovsky, My Three Cents blog.

Domino’s was on the ball with its fast response to the crisis. The brand needs to stay completely connected with its most loyal consumers through this with consistent follow-through. –Daryl McCullough, CEO, PainePR, via e-mail.

1: Rapid response. Find the people who are spreading the misinformation. 2: Feed them accurate info (targeted messaging). 3: Listen and measure results. –Jason Selss, communications director, Remarkable Search, via e-mail.

Suck It Up. Acknowledgment and Apology: When something bad happens, it’s vital to acknowledge it quickly and to apologize sincerely. Stalling and shifting blame are counterproductive and will raise further ire among consumers.

KatyHarrison20 @mariansalzman Domino’s first needs to own the fact that it happened, apologize, and assure ppl there are serious changes coming #HARO via Twitter.

In our 20 years of research on how leaders build trust, we found that there are four ways in which trust is built: by being reliable, open and honest, competent and compassionate. We call this the ROCC of trust. Domino’s took a good first step with its YouTube video by expressing remorse and being open and honest about the situation, taking responsibility for it instead of hiding behind two incompetent employees. –Karen E. Mishra, assistant professor of marketing and advertising, Meredith College School of Business, via e-mail.

Don’t Hide. Transparency: Reputation problems can be both prevented and remedied by thinking and acting transparently. The corporation must be ready for public scrutiny — because it can occur at any time.

ljjones @mariansalzman Domino’s needs a transparency campaign exposing the inner workings of franchises — quest to improve cleanliness/quality –via Twitter.

S3Denise @mariansalzman Install video cameras in all food-prep areas, viewable online and in stores at all times. –via Twitter.

jimenatoledo @mariansalzman Open their kitchens, loft restaurants, Web cams to see how your pizza is made. –via Twitter.

Video monitoring of the food-production process would be a wise system to implement to reassure the public and up the ante against competitors trying to make hay from this. –Mike Langton, managing director, Interbrand Singapore, via e-mail.

Domino’s may wish to invite some influencers to witness the entire process: food selection, logistics, hiring, storage, making of the pizzas, etc. –Brad MacAfee, partner and managing director, Porter Novelli, via e-mail.

Reinvigorate and communicate its employee training program. Consumers have to trust that Domino’s is taking steps to make sure its employees are among the best trained in the industry. –Wendi Taylor Nations, managing director, Porter Novelli, via e-mail.

Remember Desire. Marketing: The established disciplines of marketing still apply. And a reputation crisis is actually an opportunity to win customers back and draw attention to the right things.

Customers who have purchased Domino’s in the past should be reimbursed for free product for their next purchase. –Joel Mooy, Porter Novelli, via Facebook.

If Domino’s really wanted to be creative in its response, record a video of chef Gordon Ramsay conducting one of his notoriously pedantic inspections of the kitchen in question. With Ramsay’s seal of approval, Domino’s customers would feel comfortable ordering pizza again. –Andy Beal, founder of Trackur.com and co-author of Radically Transparent: Monitoring & Managing Reputations Online, via e-mail.

I’d put messages targeted at existing patrons first (pizza box tip-ons, in-store posters), followed by paid mass-media messages targeted at patrons who may have reservations about ordering from Domino’s (coupons for discounted pizzas, incentive offerings to drive orders to local locations). –Noel Griese, APR, author of How to Manage Organizational Communication During Crisis, via e-mail.

Talk Sense. Tonality: What a corporation or brand says is very important, but so is how it says it. Serious events demand a serious tone that matches the mood of consumers but doesn’t amplify it.

They’ve fired the kids who did it, that’s enough to restore confidence for me. –Rad Probst, Porter Novelli, via Facebook.

davidparmet @mariansalzman domino’s handled this right. they took it seriously. they took the blogs seriously. they dealt with it in a public manner –via Twitter.

The video response from Domino’s president struck the right tone and included all the right elements for moving forward — restating the facts, punishment for the culprits, making sure it never happens again and asking for brand forgiveness. … Brand terrorists are all around us. It is how companies respond that makes the difference between success and failure. Domino’s will do just fine.” –Leslie Gaines-Ross, chief reputation strategist, Weber Shandwick, via e-mail.

Be One. Solidarity: Provided a brand or corporation hasn’t alienated people beyond repair, it should ally itself with the common cause of customers, employees and other corporations with similar interests.

I just watched Domino’s video response and found it effective. Focusing on the independent owners and thousands of employees who may lose their jobs if people stop ordering their pizza … is the right message in these “times are tough” times. People are aware of the horrible things that can happen due to wild Internet postings and urban legend rumors and can be sympathetic, if this is positioned as a rogue incident. –Elise Goyette, via Facebook.

rpulvino @mariansalzman All food companies are vulnerable to this. It is up to employers to instill empathy in the employees … make them think. –via Twitter.

eddiemart @mariansalzman Opp for the food service industry as a whole to address this issue. Use SM tools to show good business practices. –via Twitter.

[The CEO in the video] also mentioned that Domino’s would be addressing its employee recruitment process, which would not be something folks would think of at first, but that really gets at the competence of those who work for and represent Domino’s. They will need to find ways to be compassionate to employees and the store owner as they find themselves out of work or with reduced hours until the store is ready to re-open. –Karen E. Mishra, assistant professor of marketing and advertising, Meredith College School of Business, via e-mail.

The issue should have been positioned as one of food safety and prosecutions being under state or federal laws and less focus on the civil suit. This could happen in a Burger King or anywhere else and that needs to be examined too. Competitors will need to respond to show how it could not happen in their kitchens, so be prepared for that. –Mike Langton, managing director, Interbrand Singapore, via e-mail.

Perhaps they might want to put up a Web site where people can send in specific questions and concerns. People nowadays don’t simply want to be told, they want to take part in the process. As is often the case, in the midst of controversy, there is opportunity. Lots of people are thinking about Domino’s right now, so let’s get them thinking for us. What ideas can you think of that would make our product better? Maybe it’s time for some changes and new direction. Now’s the time to act. –Dan Collins, APR, ABC, PR professional, via e-mail.

Marian Salzman is chief marketing officer of Porter Novelli.