N.C. Police Department/AP
Domino's Pizza employees Michael Anthony Setzer and Kristy Lynn Hammonds.

Domino’s Is Hurt, Then Helped, by the Internet

April 16, 2009 06:30 PM
by Liz Colville
A YouTube video showing Domino’s employees recreating consumers’ greatest fears about fast food has turned into a PR nightmare for the 50-year-old chain, emphasizing the risks—and benefits—that the Web poses to companies.

Domino’s Spokesperson Highlights Risks of Web

On April 13, a YouTube video showing two Domino’s employees “doing unsanitary things to customers’ orders” appeared on Consumerist and numerous other Web sites. In the clip, an employee named Michael is shown sticking cheese and peppers up his nose—and worse.

The video “reflects some of the worst fears consumers have about food purchased from restaurants,” USA Today reports, noting that the video and discussion of it spread quickly through social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. But the message on those sites appears to be largely in favor of the 50-year-old fast-food chain: The company is "getting fairly high marks from social-networking and crisis-management gurus about its response."
But according to The New York Times, “The perception of its quality among consumers went from positive to negative since Monday, according to the research firm YouGov.”

Consumerist, a powerful consumer-interest blog, posted an article about the prank on Monday. Two readers then helped identify the two employees as Michael Anthony Setzer, 32, of Conover, N.C., and Kristy Lynn Hammonds, 31, of Taylorsville, N.C. Both were arrested April 15 for food tampering, which is a felony in North Carolina, according to USA Today.

The Consumerist readers “managed to track down the location, call the store directly to alert the manager, and send the address to Domino's corporate.” The readers “used clues in the video to find the franchise location in Conover,” The New York Times added.

A Domino’s spokesperson, Tim McIntyre, appeared cynical about the Web’s role in the incident when he said, “Nothing is local anymore. That's the challenge of the Web world. Any two idiots with a video camera and a dumb idea can damage the reputation of a 50-year-old brand.”

Kristy Hammonds, the employee who filmed the prank, sent an apologetic e-mail to Domino’s claiming it was a hoax. The e-mail was reprinted on Consumerist. Domino’s has also created a Twitter account, dpzinfo, because “we were doing and saying things, but they weren’t being covered in Twitter,” McIntyre told The Times.

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Opinion & Analysis: Dressing the wounds of a PR nightmare

Today, a “Twitterstorm,” or a rapid spread of information and misinformation over the micro-blogging network, can be one of the most damning phenomena to hit a company, as the recent Amazon controversy over a cataloging glitch illustrates. Advertising Age writes that to “weather” a Twitterstorm, companies should follow a few guidelines. These include: “Listen to the what—and to the who,” “Tone matters,” and “Address the crowd where it’s gathered,” as Domino’s has now done on Twitter.

But how can such nightmares be prevented in the first place? USA Today includes some preventative advice at the end of its report on Domino’s: “Educate workers” and “Foster a positive culture” are among the tips. And in case they do happen, “It's important that all employees have some media and social-media training,” according to Ross Mayfield of Socialtext, a social media consulting company.

In a case study, business-to-business social media strategist Ron Ploof looks at how the auto giant Ford used social media to save itself from a difficult PR situation. When an administrator on the Ford Ranger fan site The Ranger Station wrote that the site was “being attacked” by Ford, Scott Monty, Ford’s head of social media, was charged with quelling the rumor and its fallout. Monty successfully used Twitter to “add a human touch” and “put a face on Ford,” exemplifying the adage that “Companies don’t talk: People do.” Ploof reviews some of the lessons behind Monty’s efforts, applicable to other companies facing such predicaments.

Related Topic: Wendy’s severed finger controversy stalls profits

In 2005, a woman was jailed for attempted grand larceny after she claimed to have bitten into a human finger while eating a bowl of chili at a Wendy’s in San Jose, Calif. The police found “inconsistencies in her story,” The Washington Post reported. Wendy’s conducted an “‘ingredient trace back investigation’ that found no evidence the well-manicured digit entered the chili at any point of the preparation or storage process, all the way back to the places where the tomatoes and beans were canned.” But the San Jose-area Wendy’s franchises “saw sales plunge at least 30 percent” following the incident and the company was forced to make layoffs.

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