Food Safety | January 2010 | By Robin Van Tan

Brand, We Have a Problem

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Crises like inappropriate employee behavior could hurt a brand in the long run.
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Speak Up (or Not)

Domino’s decided to post a statement on its Web site 24 hours after the inappropriate employee video was released. It told customers that the company was aware of the video, that the employees who made it claimed it was a hoax, and that they had been fired and were now facing felony charges.

About 48 hours after the incident occurred, the company posted a video response to YouTube. It featured CEO Patrick Doyle discussing how angry Domino’s was about the incident and how it was not representative of the way the company had conducted business for the past 49 years. Although this was an unprecedented move, many faulted Domino’s for not responding to the problem immediately—a criticism McIntyre finds laughable.

While Domino’s found the employees responsible for the video and made sure they were fired and charged with tampering with food, the company also was communicating with the Web sites where the video was being circulated.

“We were addressing a core audience,” McIntyre says. “To do otherwise would have been putting out a candle with a fire hose.”

Before every move, Domino’s weighed carefully whether to communicate about the video to a larger audience. When it did post that first statement on its Web site, the number of views of the original YouTube video doubled to half a million.

“I don’t want to say we triggered our own crisis,” McIntyre says, “but we knew what was going to happen. As soon as we posted a statement on our Web site, we were essentially posting chapter two, and we knew people were going to go find chapter one.”

Dezenhall, author of Damage Control, agrees that sometimes less is more when it comes to crisis communication.

“Some organizations make the mistake of doing too much PR with the assumption that everybody is as aware of the incident as they are,” he says. “When you do that, you can create a situation whereby you actually make anxious consumers who had not heard of the issue aware of it.”

He recommends instead communicating only to customers who express concern with responses to what are typically their two main questions: “Am I going to be OK?” and “What are you doing about it?”

Saladworks President Paul Steck, though, has a different view on the subject.

“Overcommunicate would be my strong recommendation to anyone in the case of a crisis,” he says.

When spinach was linked to an outbreak of E. Coli in 2006, communication about what Saladworks was doing to combat the problem helped the company stop a three-week sales slump dead in its tracks.

“You’ve got to take the most conservative, safe approach possible,” Steck says. “Even though we were being told our spinach was okay by our spinach vendors, our response was, ‘We don’t care. Toss it.’”

After the company disposed of as much as $20,000 worth of spinach throughout its 80 stores, it did everything possible to get the message out to customers that, until further notice, Saladworks was a spinach-free zone.

“We created a printed message that went up in every store,” Steck says. “We crafted a script of exactly what the salad makers, our hourly employees, should say to customers if they asked about it.”

And they embraced another key component of communication: dealing with the media.

Become Media Savvy

All of the experts QSR interviewed agree that cooperation with the press is a must during crisis recovery.

“Corporate should decide what are the key messages that they want to get out, what’s the basic information they need to provide, what is the company’s position on this,” says Julia Stewart, a spokeswoman for the Produce Marketing Association, adding that companies also must take whatever steps are needed to overcome customers’ remaining fears.

“If you don’t have a leader with absolute power, you don’t have a crisis team.”

For Saladworks, that meant reassuring the media that the concept had taken spinach off the menu and would keep it off for as long as it was in question.

At Domino’s, communicating the core message that “Domino’s didn’t do this” became a key strategy. The company emphasized the point so successfully that most of the media coverage turned into a case study of how social media can turn disastrous for a company—instead of a criticism of Domino’s.

Smithfield’s, too, found communication with the media to be beneficial during its swine flu scare.

Averitte took a proactive approach to media coverage, sending the blog post he had drafted to his media list.

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