When I first labored in the corporate communications department of a major airline, crisis management was fairly simple. Planes crashed. Stocks fell. Unions struck. Hijackers and bombers ruled the airways and hotels caught fire. Media outlets were limited to print and broadcast — there was no worldwide web.

Exercising damage control was not easy, but you knew who the bad guys were and had probably been through it before. There were inspiring feats of crisis management, such as Johnson & Johnson’s handling of product tampering that rescued Tylenol from oblivion. Now most companies have a crisis management plan in place to deal with disasters.

But today it may not be enough because, to quote an executive at Domino’s Pizza, “any idiot with a webcam and an Internet connection” can threaten the credibility of a major brand and jeopardize the livelihoods of thousands of people.

This testimony to the power of social media occurred when two Domino’s Pizza employees posted a brainless, tasteless, and defamatory video on YouTube, where it received more than a million hits. It was so disgusting that those who saw it might never again look a slice of pizza or a cheese sandwich in the eye.

Domino’s fired the pair who filmed this farce — Kristy Hammond and Michael Setzer — and demanded that YouTube take it down. But that was just the beginning. The company filed felony charges against the pair, and is planning a civil suit.

The incident not only put people off Domino’s — it had a negative impact on the whole industry. It’s an affront to thousands of hardworking people around the globe who are victims of a couple of 30-something adolescents. And it shows that for all the Tweeting that goes on about the value of social media to businesses, any business can be seriously threatened by people who are malicious, immature, or just incredibly stupid.

Domino’s did all the right things and then some. It took action against the employees, issued a statement to the media, and assured the public that no contaminated food had been delivered. They closed the restaurant and sanitized it. It fought fire with fire, using social media and, issuing a video statement on YouTube by CEO David Brandon reassuring the public. It also went on Twitter under the handle “dpzinfo” to promote positive buzz.

But damage control is getting in the Internet Age. “We got blindsided by two idiots with a video camera and an awful idea,” said a Domino’s spokesman, Tim McIntyre. “Even people who’ve been loyal customers for 10, 15, 20 years are second-guessing their relationship with Domino’s, and that’s not fair.”

Sweeney is president of Anne Sweeney Public Relations in Monmouth Junction. She grew up in Rhode Island and began her career as a flight attendant for Pan Am, where she held management positions in passenger services and public relations. She also worked for Intercontinental Hotels Corporation. She holds a bachelor’s in English from Rosemont College.

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