Why McDonald’s flap over franchisee’s politics actually helps PR pros

This is a piece I was commissioned to write for Ragan.com:

Published: 11/1/2010 

Why McDonald’s flap over franchisee’s politics actually helps PR pros
By Ari B. Adler

When a single location’s owner taints a global company, who ya gonna call?  

McDonald’s Corp. is working to get some Egg McMuffin off its face after astory hit the Internet about a franchise in Canton, Ohio, distributing a paycheck stuffer suggesting which political candidates the employees should support.

The McDonald’s legal team will be working overtime trying to pull the company out of the deep fryer on this one, but that’s not the most interesting thing to me. As a media relations professional, I’m interested in seeing how one of the world’s most-recognized global brands deals with a local mistake that spreads across the world.

The story broke Friday and, thanks to the Internet, there were news stories, blog posts and tweets going out at a rapid pace. If history is a good predictor, the fun has only just begun for the McDonald’s corporate communications team.

Legal issues aside, readers’ comments on at least one blog entry added up fast and quickly turned vitriolic. The majority of readers at the Thinkprogress.org post were quick to blend the fast-food chain’s reputation with the apparent Republican agenda to take over the world one minimum-wage vote at a time.

Missteps can happen with a corporation as large as McDonald’s, and the risk is even greater when your company is built on franchise operations. That means it’s your logo, your brand and your reputation, but it’s at the mercy of every local yahoo who has paid enough to open a store with your sign out front.

Remember the disgusting Domino’s food video last year? That was at a franchise store where corporate had no say in who was working there. If they had, they might have been able to sniff out a problem faster than the franchise owner did.I’ve been in media relations for many years, and it is amazing to me how much things have changed in just the past few. We used to worry about a story getting in the local paper and, perhaps, going even more widespread if it hit the TV news that night. Should it have gotten out of control, we might have received coverage by a national news outlet. Now we have to deal with every potential outlet, including blogs and social media. And many of the new outlets don’t play by the old rules. Actually, some of them don’t play by any rules. Even if a given outlet tries to be fair in reporting on something, reader comments often are the most damaging part of the attack on your brand and reputation.

I recently heard Tim McIntyre, Domino’s vice president of communications, talk about how the online mentions of the gross employee video peaked and then plummeted after the company posted its response video on YouTube. Unfortunately, the company posting the video ended up drawing the attention of the mainstream media, and the second news cycle on the issue immediately got under way.

The odds seem insurmountable sometimes, because it just doesn’t seem possible to keep up with it all. But that does not mean we should be throwing in the towel. Media relations professionals have myriad tools available to them to monitor, track and respond to mentions in mainstream and online press as well as Twitter, Facebook and other social media outlets.

Instead of getting frustrated with all the work we see laid out before us, perhaps we should see it as job security instead. I’m certain some corporate executives are wondering why, at a time when the mainstream press is crumbling, their media-relations department really needs the budget it has requested. When corporations realize how fragile their brand is, however, and how easy it is for anyone and everyone to launch an attack these days, that should help those of us on the front line land a little more support.

Media relations is no longer just about the media in the traditional sense. Certainly we have to work with the mainstream press, but we also have to broaden our horizons to take on online news outlets, bloggers, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and many more. If it can be used for communication, we need to be aware of it, monitor it, understand it and work with it.

So keep that in mind as the company budgets are being prepared for 2011. The media team is no longer effective if your company’s definition of “team” is you and a Google news account. There are hardware and software costs that must be budgeted for, as well as having the necessary number of employees on hand to handle the growing list of media relations tasks.

The CEOs of the world often focus on the bottom line. But they still are going to spend some money on property insurance in case a fire happens at one of their facilities. It’s high time companies started paying attention to the reputation-focused firefighters they have on staff, too. Otherwise, the next time a three-alarm blaze erupts and you try to douse it with some pitiful Google news alerts, their bottom line is likely to end up all burned and crunchy—like a McDonald’s fry left floating in a basket of hot oil for too long.

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