Playing Domino's

Chain avoids public relations disaster with proper spin and defense

Steve Holtz, Editor in Chief, CSP Daily News

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Domino's Pizza was riding high: Just months after the successful launch of its toasted sub sandwiches and nearing the rollout of a whole new recipe, the pizza chain got wind of a YouTube video allegedly posted by two employees that had the potential to be disastrous for the company.

In the video, the two employees of a franchised site in North Carolina, working one slow evening in spring 2009, are seen making an order for a customer and doing "vile, disgusting things" to the pizza, said Domino's chairman David Brandon during a keynote speech at CSP's [image-nocss] Restaurant Leadership Conference in Scottsdale, Ariz., this week.

"The YouTube incident," as Brandon called it, was going to be a problem. Even after being reassured the offending pizza was never meant for a customer and was not delivered or sold, Brandon and the rest of the Domino's leadership team went into action to nip the potential public relations fiasco in the bud.

"We contacted YouTube and any other online sources of the video, asked them to remove it," Brandon said. "Most of them were readily compliant.

"Then we took steps to repair our name," he added. "By that time, the video had only been viewed 250,000 timesonly. But we thought, 'We can't overreact here.' If we went on a full defensive, we risked sending more people to view the video. Instead, we just wanted to reach the people that had already seen it."

That task proved more difficult than Brandon, who was CEO at the time, and Domino's had expected, and the view totals continued to add up, eventually topping the one million mark.
"It had gone viral," Brandon said. "It was time for a full defense."

Domino's reached out to the media to tell its story. "We needed to make sure people understood we were the victim here, not the customers."

The successful spin worked, as major newspapers from across the country and around the world picked up on the story.

"The great thing was [that] the story [in those newspapers] was not 'How do you deal with tainted food?' It was 'How do you deal with such [bad exposure] in the day and age of social media?'
"Why did it work?" Brandon continued. "Consumers knew the brand; they trusted the brand. We didn't run and hide; we actually got our message out there."

Yes, sales dipped at the apex of the incident, but since the media blitz, the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based company has seen clear gains that suggest its defensive did more than make the problem go away; it also turned the problem into a win.

As for the two employees: "They were fired, they're unemployable and they're facing felony charges," Brandon said to spirited applause from the conference attendees. "And they deserve it."

Steve Holtz, CSP/Winsight By Steve Holtz, Editor in Chief, CSP Daily News
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