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.

How many Michiganders does it take to change a lightbulb?

Detroit Free Press Editor Ron Dzwonkowski wrote a good column for today’s paper about how elected officials are often the last people to “get it.” He wrote:

“Maybe that’s why they continue to bicker and shout and pander to noisy special interest groups while most of the people they are supposed to represent would prefer cooperation, meaningful change and progress.”

I was pleased to see Dzwonkowski quote my friend Becky Johns as a representative of her generation. Becky recently wrote an excellent blog post about Future Midwest — I especially liked the part where she asks, “Now what?”

I commented on her blog, saying it really is important to make sure events like Future Midwest don’t end up just becoming a bunch of people talking to themselves about what should be done. People have to take ideas and act upon them; that’s how you create positive change in a community.

Our elected leaders — at the state and local level — are such a disappointment lately with their petty battles. I was a speaker at a conference in Oklahoma City recently and they are making some amazing, positive improvements to that city. When I asked a colleague there about the changes and whether the mayor who has been championing a lot of them is a Republican or Democrat, he seemed surprised. He said the mayor is a Republican, but noted that in Oklahoma City, that doesn’t really matter. He said the city has a good track record of not worrying about the politics and focusing more on the problem at hand.

It was tough to admit to him that one of the issues we’re facing in Michigan is that politics often is the problem at hand. Hopefully, we’ll see some sensible people elected in November who can bring to Lansing some civility and a desire to do something because it’s a good idea regardless of which party proposed it.  Here are some things I’d like to pursue over the next year:

  • We need to keep hounding people who were at Future Midwest about what they’ve accomplished so far and prod them to keep achieving even more.
  • We need to put term limits back where they belong: in the voting booth.
  • And we need to ban elected officials from running for another office until they’ve completed the term of their current office. That would avoid the scenario of a Senate majority leader running for attorney general and the speaker of the House running for governor while the state they are charged with protecting crumbles around their election campaigns. (Addendum: In all fairness to Mike Bishop and Andy Dillon, they aren’t the only two leaders distracted by their own job searches. We have state representatives running for the state Senate and local office. We have senators running for countywide offices, the Secretary of State’s office and Congress. We have a congressman and an attorney general running for governor. And we have countywide officials running for governor and secretary of state while our secretary of state runs for lieutenant governor. No wonder no one can focus on the job at hand — they’re all too busy trying to land their next one.)

I hope Becky and her peers never lose their desire to do more than just talk about what’s wrong. In the end, they are not only the future of this state, but the catalyst to sweep away the flotsam and jetsam that is bobbing around the state Capitol and the city halls of Southeast Michigan. And those of us in other generations can help them do this. Get involved in the election process. Find out what a person really stands for and don’t vote based on what you see on TV ads or the campaign literature that is filled with half-truths, or worse.

In addition, let’s start working together across generations. People often wring their hands and wonder why young college graduates are leaving Michigan. Maybe that’s because, too often, we’re not giving them a reason to stay. It’s not just about jobs. Sometimes it’s about knowing that there is a bright future in Michigan. The light bulb has dimmed in the Great Lakes State, so it’s time for a new one.

How many Michiganders does it take to change a light bulb? All of us. So let’s get to it.

(Photo courtesy of Armistead Booker’s Flickr stream.)

Will Michigan turn completely blue in 2010?

I attended a pundit summit in Lansing, Michigan this afternoon where folks involved in elections and politics from the public and private sectors came together to talk about what happened on Nov. 4.

One of the panels discussed the presidential campaign in Michigan. The panelists included two people involved in the Obama and McCain campaigns. Holly Hughes is a National Committeewoman for the Republican Party and a losing candidate for a state House seat. She was joined by Amy Chapman, Michigan Director of the Obama for America Campaign.

Chapman noted that, in Michigan at least, the Dems were able to use the Obama win to make sweeping changes in the balance of power at state and local levels throughout the state.

Chapman said she felt great about what they were able to do organizationally, which is an important point. Several reporters and pundits throughout the country have commented how the Obama campaign was more organized than the McCain campaign was. I can’t speak about either campaign personally, but I can tell you from talking to friends and colleagues that many Republican campaigns in Michigan were a mess.

Hughes said 2010 would be a whole other story. While Chapman said the Dems’ work this year will help with more Democrat ticket sweeps in two years, Hughes disagreed. Never giving up on her Republican Kool-Aid spin, Hughes said Obama’s honeymoon will end quickly and, particularly in Michigan, we’ll see more tough times ahead. According to Hughes, that means Michiganders will be ready to hand control back to the GOP at the state level in 2010.

The political situation in Michigan is critical in 2010 because the stage has been set for the Democrats to take over completely. They could hold on to the governor’s office and the state House. They could take over the state Senate for the first time in nearly three decades and they could land a majority on the state Supreme Court. Impressive on its own merit, that kind of sweep would put the Democrats in a position where they can take on the task of redistricting for state and congressional districts in Michigan without a challenge. That means they get to draw the voting maps used through 2020.

What do you think? Is Michigan going to turn entirely blue in two years? Or will we take the usual road the Great Lakes State follows and keep a mixed bag of leadership fighting for attention in Lansing?

The world is run by those who show up

For too many decades now, the American people have shrugged their shoulders and thought they couldn’t make a difference in the voting booth. On Tuesday, Nov. 4, they were proven wrong. While I didn’t support Barack Obama for president, I was thrilled to see the groundswell of activity and hope he brought out of those who did support him.

This is the United States as a democracy. This is the people standing up to be counted. This is what makes the United States of America the best place in the world to call home.

I am worried that the giddiness people feel right now will lead to a big letdown when the reality of the current Washington political machine kicks in, and kicks the hopes and dreams of Barack Obama’s best intentions to the curb.

Only when we truly wake up and realize there is more to the governing of this country than can be handled by just Democrats or Republicans will we truly see something different and special. There were many people on the ballots across the country on Nov. 4 who were ignored by the media. The Libertarian Party, the Green Party, and many others stood up and tried to have their voices heard only to be dismissed by the media and the voters.

People often complain that “Washington is broken.” Well, it’s broken because we’ve allowed a two-party system to maintain control for too long. Washington is broken because both of the major parties are competing to prove to America that the political system cannot be fixed.

If Obama showed us anything, it’s that hope is still alive in this country. Great, now let’s start hoping for an end to politics as usual and an end to the tyranny of a two-party system.