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Domino's Discovers Social Media

When an unsavory video made by since-fired employees went viral, Domino's Pizza made a mistake in staying quiet as long as it did, says Richard Levick

Domino's Pizza learned a hard lesson. There is a big difference between how the emerging social media are used for marketing and how they work in a serious crisis situation. Other companies would be wise to pay attention.

If there were any question that damaging blog posts, tweets, and viral videos have changed the ground rules and raised the stakes for crisis communication and brand protection, those doubts were laid to rest forever the instant a prank video depicting two Domino's employees defacing pizza and sandwiches was uploaded to YouTube. Corporate America was put on notice.

Companies that have learned how to market their products online now have to understand that when a crisis erupts they also have to go online to protect their brands. The plaintiffs' bar, NGOs, and activists of all sorts now dominate the digital domain. Companies that fail to integrate their marketing efforts with their online crisis response plans before a crisis hits are letting their antagonists have free reign. A dangerous mistake.

When the Domino's video first hit YouTube, the company held off making a statement for 24 hours, assuming that anything they said would only add fuel to the online fire. They soon realized that in the digital world in which we all now live such a strategy just won't work.

When they realized that the blogosphere was already ablaze and that overnight the YouTube video had reached more than a quarter million viewers, Domino's changed course and responded with a viral video of his own. It featured all the elements of effective crisis management. The company president apologized. He thanked the online community for bringing the issue to his attention. He separated the company from the wrongdoers and announced their prosecution. And he outlined the steps that Domino's was taking to deal with the issue to make sure it never happens again.

All of this is classic crisis management, but taken to an entirely new level online. By engaging in the online conversation, rather than dismissing it in a crisis as so many businesses, including, unfortunately Wall Street and Detroit, still do, Domino's not only demonstrated concern for its customers, but also an understanding of the critical importance of reaching out to a target audience on its own terms and in its own preferred space. This crisis happened online. It had to be dealt with online. By learning that lesson under fire Domino's broke new ground and opened a new chapter in the ongoing evolution of crisis communications.

A lot has changed in the two decades since Johnson & Johnson's response to the Tylenol tampering case set the standard for crisis response and taught companies to take swift action and run to the light, rather than away from it.

Along the way, the Sarbanes-Oxley law legislated corporate transparency across the board. And then came social media. When angry mothers took to their computers to complain about a Motrin advertisement that suggested babies could be worn as fashion accessories, it came as a shock, and the company was forced to apologize and abandon the campaign. When a clandestine Human Society operative posted images on YouTube of 'downer cattle' being sent to slaughter, it precipitated the largest beef recall in American history. In less than a month, meat packing giant Westland/Hallmark was out of business, in large part because it failed to manage the crisis where it erupted, online.

And now, once again, the Domino's experience has demonstrated that companies can no longer count on the stone tablets of traditional media to alert them to reputational risk. They must have their fingers constantly on the pulse of public opinion. And today that pulse beats online.

The critical lesson for corporations is not to evaluate Domino's reaction as a bystander, but to change their own online digital crisis strategy, and do it now.

Only time will tell if Domino's ongoing response to the now infamous YouTube video will earn it the same legendary brand loyalty that Tylenol achieved back in the 1980s. But the company has shown that it can adjust quickly to the rapidly evolving digital environment in which everyone now has to operate. Other companies would do well to learn the same lesson.

Provided by Directorship—The Leading Publication for Boardroom Intelligence

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