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Fight Viral with Viral:

A Case Study of Domino’s Pizza’s Crisis Communication Strategies

Domino’s Pizza was embroiled in a viral crisis situation when two rogue employees posted videos of adulterated food on YouTube in April 2009. Tim McIntyre, Vice President of Communications, was part of the internal team that delivered the company’s crisis communication plan through Twitter and YouTube. What makes this story so compelling is the social media aspect of both the crisis itself and the strategy for managing the crisis. The interesting challenge was Domino’s decision to integrate the same medium that sparked the crisis into the strategies to manage the situation, and the efficacy of best practices and principles of crisis management in the age of social media.

Overview and Background

The way in which companies communicate with stakeholders during a crisis event is rapidly changing with the 24-hour access provided by the Internet, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Public relations practitioners and other communication executives are struggling to craft messages and maintain control of the flow of messages within this dynamic landscape. As Schiller explains, in “times of crisis, while corporate communication executives are preparing manicured statements, customers are [simultaneously] blogging, e-mailing and posting photos out of rage and desperation because the very people who should be listening to them aren’t” .. Bell asserts that stakeholders become “interpretive communities in organizational crisis contexts,” capable of cultivating an organization’s reputation through information they receive in cyberspace.. Social media allow stakeholders to control when, where, and how “reputational meanings are born and disseminated” as “an organization’s reputation is built on the stories formed by stakeholders and spread within networks” .. Nowhere is this dynamic between organizations and their publics more apparent than on video sharing sites, such as YouTube, that encourage citizens and bloggers to be the co-producers of messages.

Burgess and Green explain that YouTube users engage with this medium “as if it is a space specifically designed for them and that should therefore serve their own particular interests” This can have enormous positive or negative impacts for organizations involved in crisis management, including but not limited to the inability of boundary spanners to monitor the vastness of this space; malicious users who might create a crisis; and the leveraging capabilities of this platform to enhance a brand during a crisis. Just as consumers can use this social medium to create a crisis for a company and interpret an organization’s reputation throughout, so too can an organization use this medium to manage a crisis and improve its reputation. Patrick Doyle, President of Domino’s Pizza, would come to understand this dynamic as his brand suffered a devastating blow when two employees uploaded a vulgar video demonstrating their grotesque adulteration of food.

Bob Garfield , a writer for Ad Age Blogs, recounts in an online article how this incident began. On Easter Sunday in April 2009, two Domino’s employees who were bored “working in a North Carolina store figured it would be just hilarious to post a video of themselves, defiling sandwich ingredients” . The duo created five videos in total, one of which showed an individual sticking mozzarella cheese up his nose and then blowing the cheese on a sandwich, among other unsanitary and stomach-turning activities. An estimated 1 million people viewed these videos before they were pulled two days later.

During the first 24 hours, Tim McIntyre, Vice President of Corporate Communications, surveyed the situation and determined that the videos were not a hoax. He then began to communicate internally and externally with “relevant audiences at that time [including] our social media people, our head of security, senior management team,” according to Amy Jacques (2009) in an article published in The Public Relations Strategist . McIntyre collaborated with the consumer watchdog organization GoodAsYou.org, which first alerted Domino’s of the employee video, to identify the rogue employees as Kristy Hammond and Michael Setzer. By Tuesday, according to McIntyre, the company was responding to customers’ queries on Twitter about whether the company knew about the situation, what the company was doing, and why the company had not issued an official statement . By Wednesday, Patrick Doyle, President of Domino’s Pizza, recorded an apology that was then uploaded onto YouTube.

During this event, bloggers and journalists alike captured this crisis in articles and case studies, offering step-by-step timelines]. What follows in this case study is an analysis of Domino’s crisis communication strategies, using a blend of best practices for crisis management from the principles of public relations management crafted by Arthur W. Page and from an academic perspective as the framework for analysis. From a communication perspective, according to Jaques, case studies “are generally a narrative of events which are critically examined in relation to recognized public relations theories and models in order to fully appreciate what happened and to consider alternative strategies and outcomes” , and are written to provide practical value to managers and practitioners alike who are struggling to manage and control the flow of messages in the viral/digital landscape

Research

These principles are similar to the 10 best crisis communication practices Seeger (2006) generated, based on the work of communication scholars and expert practitioners:

1. Process approaches and policy development;

2. Pre-event planning;

3. Partnership with the public;

4. Listen to the public’s concerns and understand the audience;

5. Honesty, candor, and openness;

6. Collaborate and coordinate with credible sources;

7. Meet the needs of the media and remain accessible;

8. Communicate with compassion, concern and empathy;

9. Accept uncertainty and ambiguity; and

10. Messages of self-efficacy.

Veil, Buehner, and Palenchar (2011) extend Seeger’s best practices, incorporating social media tools by making social media engagement a part of risk and crisis management policies and procedures; incorporating social media when scanning the environment; being a part of rumor management to determine appropriate channels; and using social media to communicate updates in an interpersonal manner

Compiling and synthesizing these practices is not an easy task as “crises and disasters are relatively unique in nature, inherently dynamic, and unpredictable” .. These practices, according the Seeger (2006) “do not constitute a plan, but are the principles or processes that underlie an effective crisis communication plan and effective crisis response” (p. 242). Given the nature of crises, these practices will unfold and evolve differently within each situation.

Taking a situational approach to crisis communication, Coombs (2004) offers the Situational Crisis Communication Theory as an explanation for how organizations select a crisis response strategy. Essentially, a crisis triggers attributions of responsibility to the organization from stakeholders, along three dimensions: 1) whether the crisis has happened before or will likely happen again; 2) whether the event was controllable or uncontrollable by an individual or the organization; and 3) whether the crisis occurs within the organization or external to it. In this case, Domino’s as an organization was not directly responsible for this crisis, as the event occurred internally at the hands of employees, and this type of crisis had never happened before.

Based on stakeholder attributions, an organization will respond communicatively by cycling through a four step process: 1) observe events; 2) interpret information for accuracy and relevance; 3) choose a strategy among alternatives; and 4) implement the solution (Hale, Dulek, & Hale, 2005). Ideally, the strategy chosen will be aligned with the best practices and principles articulated above and will follow the four step process. Did Domino’s follow the best practices outlined by Seeger and the Page principles? What were the brand’s overall actions, decisions, and strategies for managing the crisis? In the case of Domino’s, it was not the consumers’ attributions of responsibility to Domino’s that triggered the strategy. Rather, what triggered Patrick Doyle’s decision to deliver a video apology on YouTube was the medium itself, which begs the questions, How did social media impact or influence the decision making process?, and What crisis communication lessons were learned in the process?

Evaluation

Arthur W. Page advocated for public relations practitioners to tell the truth, a laudable goal to aspire to, but nonetheless one that is increasingly challenging in today’s digital era. Initially, Domino’s relied on its traditional technology (the Internet) to upload a video response on its corporate website to tell the public the truth about the situation. However, the number of people who viewed this video paled in comparison to the number of YouTube viewers who watched the employee prank videos—over one million within 24 hours. This realization accelerated and expedited the implementation of Domino’s social media plan that was still in development.

The crucial lesson to be learned about crisis communication comes in the form of extending and aligning the Situational Crisis Communication Theory with best practices for the integrating of socialmedia .stipulated that a crisis triggers stakeholders’ attributions regarding the organization’s level of responsibility. These attributions, in turn, influence the strategy that an organization will use to lessen the damaging effects. In this case, however, it was not stakeholder attributions that dictated Domino’s strategy, but rather it was the social medium in which the crisis occurred that shaped the company’s decision to respond on YouTube as well as its overall strategy.

The only way to combat and lessen the impact of a social media generated crises like what Domino’s experienced is to integrate social media into crisis communication strategies and to create strategies for monitoring social media dialogue .Schiller agrees that “Brands that get it right will be the ones that will use the same online tools as their customers” . Further, Peeples and Vaughn concluded that Domino’s “effectively leveraged social media – the same channel used by the pranksters – to transparently communicate the company’s efforts to address the situation” .The end result was that Domino’s emerged from this vulnerability criticized, yet knowledgeable about the reality of crisis communication in the age of social media.

The reality of crisis communication today is complex and contradictory. The speed at which consumers generate information about organizations is surpassing the speed by which public relations practitioners can monitor and verify the validity of such content, in order to respond before, during, and after a crisis incident. Because social media users can instantaneously create visual and textual dialogue with an organization, there is a corresponding expectation that organizations should respond just as quickly throughout all phases of a crisis incident. But taking the time to verify information and craft appropriate and effective responses is necessary to avoid legal issues and other complications. This dynamic has several implications for:

1. How often organizations need to communicate with stakeholders: Regular updates across multiple social media should occur, using such platforms as HootSuite or Bottlenose to ensure consistency.

2. How far and wide organizations need to span the boundaries of cyberspace and social media for potential crises and for potential stakeholder groups that can be impacted and affected: Johnson, Bazaa, and Chen conducted a study on boundary spanning, concluding that “organizations should focus on recruiting, attracting, and nurturing those online users with high levels of enduring involvement and social identity,” i.e., highly engaged social media users .

3. How organizations can manage their online reputations through search engine optimization (SEO).

4. How new principles and best practices need to be developed to determine what messages or images from which stakeholder groups will tip towards a crisis.

As organizations grapple with these new directions, employees and consumers will need to learn how to accept uncertainty and ambiguity, and remain calm, patient and good humored.

Questions

1. What impact does social media have on public relations practices, particularly crisis communications and reputation management? How significant is it for organizations today to monitor content on social media sites, including hash tags and other signs of internal and external dialogue?

2. How should crisis communications preparedness plans address the proliferation of social media outlets?

3. How important is speed of response rate in a digital world, particularly when an organization is facing a crisis situation?


From India, Bangalore
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