I wouldn’t normally blog about a Pizza chain, but this week Dominos have turned themselves into an example of why businesses need to get to grips with social media, and why employee engagement really matters.

The best place to start, if you’ve missed the story so far, is with the blog post on The Consumerist – Domino’s Rogue Employees Do Disgusting Things To The Food, Put It On YouTube. If your stomach is a little delicate, then let me summarise it like this for you: Some (now very ex) Domino’s employees do some pretty unspeakably unhygienic things to food during its preparation. We’d know nothing about this, and they wouldn’t be world-famous if they hadn’t, for good measure, posted a video of them doing said activities on to YouTube.

Whin a couple of hours of Consumerist publishing the blog post, reader’s had tracked down the branch and the offending employees. They are now claiming that this was a prank, and the food was never served to anyone. Meanwhile, six thousand views on the video is gradually turning into over 500,000 views.

Domino’s responded on the original blog, but by then the story had propagated and the video was already embedded in dozens of blogs, and in people’s Twitter streams and Facebook status updates. The company issued a statement, somewhat slowly, and in a very quiet corner of their site “update to our valued customers” it said.

While the employees have been terminated, and the franchise is looking to file a criminal complaint against them, it is too late. The damage has been done. The nature of the blogosphere is that it is disperate, and doing what Domino’s did (responding on the original blog) simply isn’t enough. Stories propagate from blog to blog and you can’t get to all of them during this sort of incident. Twitter accelerates the process even further – the pace of micro-blogging makes traditional blogging look positively sedentary. 

Whatever your view of Twitter, for now it is where the news stories are made and fed – it’s where PRs and Journalists live alongside millions of people who do “other things”.  It is also where the Domino’s Pizza story took off . Shel Holtz has a great set of thoughts on the handling of the incident  “Domino’s needs to get out in front of this situation.” he says. I’d agree with that. The only way to do it is to create a focus for the response, and a place for it to be heard. It’s also the time to mobilise customers who are  passionate about your band to respond too. You have got customers like that, haven’t you?

A corporate blog and a twitter account would have provided that focal place for a response, but instead information is turning into out of date misinformation and spreading over the blogosphere, oh, and that video of the employees doing unspeakable things? It is well on its way to 1,000,000 views. Of course it might get taken down, but that would simply remove a focal point for getting information out (the video now carries a sub-title to the effect that the employees have been terminated) or it might just  result in the video being reposted.

This isn’t the first saga in the fastfood chain to hit social media. Kentucky Fried Chicken staff showed employee innovation at work, by turning a deep fat fryer sink into a hot tub. Similarly, Amazon suffered a Twitter-fuelled backlash at the start of this week over a “cataloging error” which resulted in a number of books being de-listed and cries of a censorship-foul.

This why I am so focussed on building brilliant businesses, with communities around them. Businesses need ‘friends’ looking out for them on-line. Businesses also need a strong sense of internal community. Employees who are passionate about the business and its reputation will work to preserve it. Someone, rather unkindly, referred to fast food establisments’ staffing policies as “hire on a heart beat.” I’m sure that isn’t true, but businesses need to think differently about hiring in a world were every employee is now working in PR.

PR is no longer about a few staff managing relationships with some journalists. PR is about every member of staff looking after relationships with the “Public” – the sea of people who are customers, prospects, suppliers, partners, potential future employees and friends and friends of friends of all of those. One company that really seems to get that is Zappos. Not so familiar in Europe, but growing massively in the US, Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh has built a company that seems perfect for these times. ReadWriteWeb has a recent interview with him, by Loic Le Meur:  Zappos CEO Talks Culture Fit and the Importance of Creating a ‘Wow’ Experience. Staff don’t have scripts to interact with customers, but they do get Employees get substantial initial training, and are hired and fired based on the company’s core values.

“Any idiot with a webcam and an Internet connection can attempt to undo all that’s right about the brand. In the course of one three-minute video, two idiots can attempt to unravel all of that.” Domino’s Spokesperson Tim McIntyre in Ad Age.

He’s right, and the only way to prevent it is to have a strong employee and customer communities, who are passionate about the business and united around a common set of values. That way, even if one employee does turn rogue, the rest of the community will bring things into line. Businesses must be ready to engage with social media, to know how to handle it, and to have the staff who are up to the task. You don’t want to be starting to figure it out at the same time as dealing with a crisis. Start to build the skills now.

Businesses need to build effective communication channels with employees. They need to understand that everyone in the business is in public relations, and companies’ values need to be demonstrated in living communications – not just pinned to a wall.

If ‘rank and file’ employees don’t have a feedback channel to management, malcontent can quickly turn into misbehaviour, and these days that puts you three clicks away from being on the front page for all the wrong reasons.

Listen to Tony Hsieh’s opening remarks at SXSWi. – one of the highlights of SXSWi for me – you might want to skip in a little to get past the intro. It’s a very different sort of business, embracing many of the tenants of social media into the heart of the business. You can pitch up any day and take a tour. The staff use Twitter and are active in the community. Somewhat ironically, Tony ran a Pizza business at college. I bet that was a very different sort of pizza business.

UPDATE (24 hours on): Just after this post was written, a Domino’s Pizza Twitter account was set up: DPZINFO. They are disseminating updates and engaging with the Twitter community via the account. A little stilted, and a brutal start, but good on them. I’d noticed a couple of Twitter ID’s starting with DPZ. The story has jumped to the mainstream media (USA Today, the BBC and Sky News). The apology on the Domino’s page has been updated. The store has been shut and Patrick Doyle, Domino’s CEO, says that they will re-examine their hiring practices. The original video has been taken down (at the request of Kristy, who featured in the video) and The following video posted by Domino’s:

Neville has posted a follow up on the incident, if you would like to read more. The comments on the video are the usually YouTube class act. As I write this, that video has had less than 20 thousand views, showing another asymmetry in social media: It makes a better tool for opposition than it does for defence. Alan puts it well in a post today, “Now! Big! Risk! Fear!” spread fast. That’s why social media calls for a very different approach to traditional PR, one that reaches deep inside the company.