April 16, 2009 -- When videos of employees violating a host of public health laws hit the Internet and went viral, Domino's Pizza knew it was facing a public relations crisis capable of damaging its well-known and well-regarded brand in a matter of days.
Domino's was the latest company to be on the wrong end of a "Twitter storm," a spontaneously formed digital mob that rapidly shares information. The company's swift response to the employees and its wider customer base, using the same Web sites and media that spread the video, has been praised by observers who nevertheless wonder if the company can emerge unscathed.
Shot by one employee, the video depicted another worker in the kitchen of a Conover, N.C. franchise putting cheese in his nose, blowing mucous on a sandwich and a putting a sponge he would use to wash dishes between his buttocks.
"This is Michael's special Italian sandwich," said Michael Setzer, 32, on the video, before taking a piece of mozzarella cheese from his nose and putting it on a sandwich.
Setzer and his colleague Kristy Hammonds, 31, who shot the video and posted it online, both were arrested and charged with food tampering, a felony in North Carolina. The store at which they worked was shut down to be restaffed and disinfected, according to a company spokesman.
Calls made to Setzer and Hammonds by ABCNews.com were not returned.
The digital mob played a role in alerting the company to the errant employees and tracking down their identities. Readers of the consumer affairs blog consumerist.com, which posted the video early in the week, tracked Hammonds down through her YouTube account and identified the store from matching an exterior shot in a video with an image on Google maps.
"With customers' help, we were able to find the store identify the people involved," said Domino's spokesman Tim McIntyre. "By Tuesday, we had contacted the franchise owner, given him the info we had and told him to take quick and decisive action."
McIntyre said he first learned of the video from people who found it online and called or e-mailed him or the company.
Part of Domino's approach to handling the outcry of disgusted patrons was for McIntyre to directly respond to individuals, targeting bloggers who spread the video and whom he hoped would disseminate the company's response.
Rather than issue a formal press release to the mainstream press, which McIntyre feared would only encourage more people to find and view the video, he targeted the online audience that had expressed an interest.
"I'm savvy enough to know that if I'm contacted by a blogger, whatever I say is going to get posted," McIntyre said. "Even if I think I'm responding to an individual, I'm potentially talking to millions."
When the company received an e-mail from Hammonds apologizing for the prank and claiming the tainted food was never delivered, Domino's "copied e-mail verbatim and shared it with everyone," McIntyre said.
The company then posted a video response on YouTube by company president Patrick Doyle, in the hopes that the same Twitter members and bloggers who spread the video would spread the corporate reaction and apology.
"We sincerely apologize for this incident," said Doyle. "We thank members of the online community who quickly alerted us and allowed us to take immediate action."
McIntyre said the company made an effort not to hide anything, and despite a rapid response that addressed the public's concern, the company could have responded even faster.
"If there is a lesson here," he said, "it is to move faster than we did."
Companies are quickly realizing that social networks give customers an outlet to air grievances and stage a protest in a matter of hours, said Joseph Jaffe, president and chief interrupter of Crayon, a new media consulting company.
Earlier this week, Amazon.com issued a dry boilerplate press release in response to thousands of angry customers who found each other on Twitter and complained that the bookseller had removed gay-themed titles from best-seller lists.
In November, mothers enraged by a Motrin ad that suggested carrying babies in a sling was a painful trend created enough public outrage online to get the company to pull the ad.
Similarly, redesigned Tropicana containers were pulled from the shelves after an angry Twitter storm struck the company and forced a reversal.
The Internet has changed the public relations landscape for companies. It seems they no longer can ignore customers and hope problems disappear.
"The original [Domino's] video has [been] removed from YouTube and yet still out there," Jaffe said. "It has been duplicated, cloned, ripped and rebroadcast. This is the first time companies are learning that once something is out there, it's out there. No one is quick enough to destroy them or pull them down, so you have responded intelligently."
Jaffe lauded Domino's for its response but said the company made two mistakes.
For one, the company should have "blasted a press release" rather than targeted blogs.
Secondly, he said, Domino's and other companies have to be better at listening to the Internet. Corporations, he said, should monitor what is being said about them and actively engage those people to positively change what people think about them.