Social Media PR Scandals

In Wednesday’s class, we touched on social media’s role in both causing PR scandals, and being used as a tool to effectively clean up a company post-publicity problem. Funnily enough, in my Business Writing & Communication Management class this week we had also discussed strategies for addressing social media public relation issues. Rather than referencing a large PR firm website that teaches you how to handle social media kerfuffles, we turned to a man who wasn’t even alive for the advent of the Internet: Mr. Arthur W. Page.

Background Before the Fun

Page’s guiding principles for public relations management were honed into a legacy called the Page Principles, seven guiding principles that Page instituted in his role as Vice President at AT&T (one of the first public relations positions ever created at a large corporation). The Page Principles are:

  1. Tell the truth
  2. Prove it with action
  3. Listen to stakeholders
  4. Manage for tomorrow
  5. Conduct public relations as if the whole company depended on it
  6. Realize a company’s true character is expressed by its people
  7. Remain calm, patient, and good-humored

Although theory is rarely interesting to read about, these procedures are still effective ways to manage the public perception of a company. But, as illustrated below (in two very different ways of handling a viral incident), it is vital for companies to speed up their response time and choose the right platform to respond to incidents on.

Red Cross is Getting “Slizzard”

In 2011, the official Twitter handler for the American Red Cross accidentally published the below tweet:


As it turns out, the tweet had accidentally been posted by the Red Cross social media specialist, who had thought she was on her private account. What could have been a PR disaster, within about an hour the tweet was taken down and the Red Cross had posted:


The next day, the American Red Cross addressed the late-night activity in full in an article posted to their website. They apologized, explained what had happened, and thanked people for being understanding of a “130 year old humanitarian organization… [which is] also made up of human beings” (in response to Red Cross’ handling of the snafu, they received many pledges).

However, not every company is as adept at curtailing a response to a PR calamity.

Would you like some Snot with your Cheese?

In 2009, a YouTube video created by two Domino’s employees went viral. These employees, who worked in a North Carolina store, filmed themselves sneezing, putting cheese up their nose, and adding snot to various Domino’s menu items. Rather than responding publicly immediately, Domino’s waited (hoping not to draw attention to the video) a few days before addressing the video. The president of Domino’s, Patrick Doyle, then published an official apology via YouTube, and disseminated through their other social media accounts. The apology clip has a couple hundred thousand views. Nowhere near the one million plus views the offending video had (not counting the various news channels, etc. that featured the video as well). 

Within an HBS case on Domino’s, one of the brand’s communication executives discussed what had gone wrong in their response to the incident, saying, “what we missed was the perpetual mushroom effect of viral sensations.” Doyle’s video admirably apologizes for the incident, lays out the steps Domino’s will be taking to ensure that the store in question is sanitary and that appropriate action is taken against the employees, and discusses how Domino’s will move forward. However, his video did not go viral.

Addressing Social Media Mishaps

These two separate incidents are good case studies in how to deal with viral social media incidents. The way Domino’s dealt with their PR nightmare was to essentially follow Page’s Principles to the letter:

  1. Laid out the entire story via video from the President
  2. Took action by firing the employees involved, and shutting down the store where the video was filmed for a deep clean
  3. Spoke (via video) directly to consumers
  4. Learned the power of viral videos and social media accounts, which has effected their brand management since
  5. Conducted PR as if their brand depended on it
  6. Realized the power their employees (and their conduct) had on the company
  7. Remained calm (especially in Doyle’s video)

But the Red Cross’ reaction was much more successful than Domino’s. Not only did they subvert the conversation through their response, their humor incited donors to give. Domino’s reaction was too slow, and the wrong platform through which to make an apology. It is hard to garner views that rival the viral video that caused the PR nightmare through a two minute apology video posted on YouTube. A shorter response, specifically designed for each social media platform, would have been more effective.

But the heart of Page’s Principles are still very much applicable today: just look to the beginning of Anthony Weiner’s downfall with his first explicit tweet, and attempts to cover it up. Blaming others and refusing to own up to mistakes rarely work out for individuals or companies. In today’s environment, organizations have to understand the power of the message that can be created on social media platforms. Red Cross did.



Harvard Business School Case Study: “Domino’s Pizza”


  1. sherricheng5 · ·

    Really interesting post! It’s really interesting how companies approach PR disasters. I think companies have historically had issues with PR, but with increased connectivity through social media, the chances of a mishap are higher. Almost every company nowadays has a social media account, whether its Instagram or Twitter. The individuals/teams that run those social media accounts have to be careful that every post has been reviewed and won’t offend anyone. It’s definitely a hard job to have, but I think the most important thing for companies is to always be alert and proactive with their PR.

  2. Catherine · ·

    Thorough post on PR & what that means in the world of social media! The Domino’s fiasco seems to be an example of taking theory and applying it too literally. While they may have taken all the right steps based on the Page Principles, which I think you are correct in saying are still relevant in nature for companies to use today, Domino’s did not do a good job rectifying the situation. It is important for companies to use historical principles and guiding theories, but use them in the relative environment, such as on different social media platforms, where we are in 2017. It is important to know your brand and know your audience, of which the latter, Domino’s fell short where the Red Cross thrived.

  3. Hilary_Gould · ·

    Super relevant. I tweeted about the recent Dove scandal. Especially with people being ultra sensitive in our current political state companies need to be careful how their image is being perceived. As positive as social media can be, it can also lead to PR issues that require a lot of image clean up. This is especially risky because it is hard to control social media use of individual employees which can reflect badly on the brand (evidence: ESPN anchor this week).

  4. briandentonbc · ·

    This is a really cool post! I thought the Red Cross example was really awesome. I thought that was a really cool contrast to the Oreo example we talked about in class, where it took 18 months to put together a viral tweet. There is a difference between capitalizing on an opportunity and crisis management and I think you laid out an awesome example of corporate crisis management on social media in this post. I also thought it was really interesting how Domino’s did everything “by the book” and yet was still unsuccessful. As we learned in our readings for this week, virality is a tough thing to achieve, and in retrospect it is obvious that a corporate apology video will garner far less attention than the offending tweet. By reacting quickly and with a short and humorous message, the Red Cross was able to control the narrative and turn the storyline into a positive.

  5. mattwardbc · ·

    This is an extremely articulate post, I really liked how you incorporated theory and practice seamlessly. I believe that PR is at the height of its importance in today’s very viral society. So many scandals, such as VW, may not have been mitigated by an active PR response on social media yet it would have definitely been the right step in order to attempt to save their brand image. Many times, we see companies take such reactive approaches and then have to rebuild their entire brand such as the case with Chipotle.

  6. I agree that Dominos did “all the right things”, but in all the wrong ways. I reviewed their approach to this crisis in a PR class, and the majority of the class was unimpressed with their efforts.

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