"On Easter Sunday in a small mountain town, the intentionally playful actions of two employees quickly became a worldwide marketing nightmare for a large company franchise. A slow workday at Domino’s Pizza in Conover, N.C. prompted this duo to create videos showing a male sticking cheese up his nose and then putting it on a sandwich that was to be delivered to a customer. His cohort also filmed him partaking in other unsanitary acts with the food and uploaded the videos to YouTube."
So begins a must-read article, "Domino’s delivers. . . after a vulgar video goes viral," published at PR Tactics and The Strategist Online (by the Public Relations Society of America).
(While the original video has been pulled from YouTube, you can watch a news report that captures the lowlights.)
What does this bad-PR day for a pizza company have to do with government? Possibly, quite a lot.
First, I worry that some government employees/leaders who may already be resistant to the use of social media may find Domino's "Bored Employee/Nose Cheese Sandwich" viral video proof that we must keep our employees a safe distance from all social media. That would be very unfortunate indeed, because the spread of social media use among government employees is well beyond containment. To paraphrase the Borg: "Resistance to social media is futile." We will never put that genie back in the bottle. And besides, the potential for positive effect on citizen engagement via social media far outweighs the risks.
Today, we can no more ignore YouTube than that we can CNN. A much more important takeaway from the Domino's experience is this: Will we in government be ready when something similar happens to us?
And while a prank video by a couple bored employees is unlikely, it is possible. Of greater likelihood is a video by a vindictive employee who was fired, or something inappropriate from a disgruntled employee, perhaps a release of "sensitive" information, or a hoax by someone impersonating a public employee. As one of the Domino's management officials warned, "Anyone with a camera and an Internet link can cause a lot of damage."
Additional obvious lessons include:
1. Agencies need expertise in all the media people use, especially social media, and they need it yesterday. Domino's was caught flatfooted. When the crisis happened, they were still developing their social media strategy, and they hired a social media specialist only after the crisis was over. (Sound familiar?)
2. Don't wait to build and maintain an agency presence on key social media platforms, because in the event of a communication crisis we will need already well-developed communications channels to help dispel misinformation. To get our two cents in, we must be part of the conversation. If faced with a problem similar to Domino's, will we only use the communication tools in the legacy toolbox (news releases and media interviews)? Or will we be positioned to respond immediately using YouTube (can we currently produce a video in a less than 12 hours?), Twitter (how many follow us?), Facebook (do we have any "friends?"). And, for use during crises at least, every agency should have a public-facing blog with commenting enabled and moderated round the clock.
3. Fight fire with fire -- use social media, not just (or mainly) legacy media to counter misinformation spread by social media. We should recognize there is often little or no audience crossover between social and legacy media. YouTubers are probably not watching tonight's NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. To get the message to all audiences, we must use the media each audience prefers. We have to respond across all major social media platforms or we will not only miss important constituent segments, we may be seen as stodgy and old-fashioned, not to mention ineffectual.
4. Give employees reasonable guidelines for use of social media that encourages constructive engagement inside AND outside the agency -- enough rules to deter this kind of video from being uploaded, but not so many rules that we kill creativity or eliminate meaningful, authentic engagement with citizens.
When this type of crisis happens to a government agency -- and we should expect it to happen some time in the future -- will we be ready to begin "counter-viral" communication operations immediately? Do our national press offices have the capability to produce a video in a few hours and get it uploaded to YouTube? It took Domino's 48 hours to get their video response on YouTube, but by that time nearly a million people had already seen the hoax video. It was already too late to perform damage control.
Before this kind of communication crisis happens in government, perhaps agencies should prepare now. Some agencies with public health and safety or national security responsibilities may consider creating a "Viral Video Response Team." (OK, we may not call it that, but you get the idea.) At the very least, every agency with video production capacity should know who those video production employees are and how to reach them after hours or on weekends. If the agency doesn't already have dedicated social media specialists, a) get some, or b) identify social media-savvy volunteers. A simple plan will be helpful, but keep it simple and don't overdo it -- the crisis might happen before you finish it.
Again, perhaps most importantly, don't delay development of agency presence across social media, because if we are absent from today's conversations on key social media platforms, it will be way too late to join when a crisis occurs. And if that happens, we won't just see our pizza sales suffer, we'll see public trust plummet.