Industry News | April 16, 2009

'Domino's Didn't Do This'

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Creating a corporate Twitter account was on Domino's to-do list for the next few months. But then two Conover, North Carolina, employees posted YouTube videos of themselves engaging in various unsanitary acts with food, and it went viral. The videos were viewed more than a million times before they were taken down Wednesday evening. Suddenly, creating a Twitter account to take control of Domino's social media image became a priority.

“It was very apparent to us that we needed to pull the trigger quickly,” says Tim McIntyre, vice president of Domino's Corporate Communications. “We're out there, and we're going to communicate. ... Domino's didn't do this. This was done to us, and right now the result of this is that we ware working diligently to regain your trust.”

The videos--there are reportedly four of them--were allegedly filmed Sunday and posted on YouTube Monday afternoon. They feature two employees who introduce themselves as Kristy and Michael doing several disturbing things: To wit, one shows Michael stuffing cheese up his nose and then putting it in an Italian sandwich while Kristy narrates. The two have since been identified as Kristy Hammonds, 31, and Michael Setzer, 32.

McIntyre found out about the videos when the Web master from GoodAsYou.org e-mailed him about it.

“I watched them, horrified as you might imagine, forwarded them to our head of security, wrote back to the person who sent the stuff, and thanked him for letting us know about this,” McIntyre says.

While security tried to find the employees, McIntyre focused his crisis management efforts on communications with GoodAsYou.org and another site, Consumerist.com, that had posted the videos. He compares it to how a grocery store might approach cleaning up a spill.

“You don't necessarily start mopping aisles one through 30 to take care of the spill on aisle five,” he says. “That's what we were doing.”

Much of the Internet chatter, however, criticizes Domino's hesitancy to communicate on larger platforms sooner. Despite knowing about the videos since Monday afternoon, the company didn't create a Twitter account until Wednesday morning. And while the company was communicating with administrators from GoodAsYou.org and Consumerist.com in the interim, it still hasn't posted a press release on the company Web site.

“By exposing millions of people to the end of the story, do you inadvertently invite millions of people to go look to the front half of he story?” McIntyre says. “We didn't want to do that. ... We weren't silent for 24 hours, believe me. It was just people weren't in the same place we were.”

Eric Dezenhall, CEO of Dezenhall Resources and author of Damage Control, says he thinks Domino's handled the situation well.

“I'm very reluctant to give them low marks,” he says. “In a crisis situation, you cannot do everything you want to do until you know what happened. One of the challenges we always face when we're dealing with things like this is it takes more time than you would like it to take to find out what happened, and before you can figure out what your communications vehicle is, you need to know the facts.”

Dezenhall also thinks Domino's will bounce back.

“Domino's is a very, very strong brand,” he says. “I think it's going to cause them short-term heartache, but I think probably the most important thing that happens is there is legal action taken against the perpetrators.”

Now that the company has a Twitter account, it's using it as a platform to show that it is going after the now-former employees, who were fired Tuesday morning. The company also posted a YouTube video of its own Tuesday evening.

“The two team members have been dismissed, and there are felony warrants out for their arrests,” Patrick Doyle, president of Domino's USA, says in the video. “There is nothing more important and sacred to us than our customers' trust.”

Both employees were charged with tampering with food, a Class I felony in North Carolina. They were taken into custody Wednesday, and if convicted, Hammonds and Setzer could spend anywhere from four months to a year in prison.

Even in the face of crisis and the ensuing criticism, McIntyre remains optimistic.

“I don't care about the critiques from the armchair quarterbacks,” he says. “What we have discovered over the last two days is that this brand means something to people. People have a connection to it, and there are a lot of people who recognize this for what it was, which was the errant act of two fools with a video camera.”

--Robin Hilmantel