McDonald’s recently displayed a clever use of public relations basics to counter a negative impression.
Here’s the relevant rule: if your brand is threatened in traditional media the best way to try and repair the damage and re-build the brand is with good media relations and a strategic, long-term PR plan.
Many brands have made the mistake of being arrogant with the media and coming short. An example is Robertson’s Spices, a company that quickly learnt its lesson about not taking the media seriously.
A few years ago, the Sunday Times alleged that Robertsons’ Peri-Peri spice contained a toxic colorant called Sudan-Red. Unfortunately their reaction to the article was to be stand-offish.
Then, when they realised the damage they had done, they tried to claw back their sullied reputation with the publication of an advert that tried to explain their position.
This example highlights two principles of PR:
– If the media have dirt on your brand and provide you with a ‘right of reply’ – engage with them in a friendly manner and try and get them to see your side of the story. Don’t be rude to them.
– Advertising is less effective than editorial when you are trying to overcome a negative perception. Editorial is more effective than advertising because it is written by an impartial third-party. Advertising is paid for by the advertiser, is by definition one-sided.
Similarly to Robertsons, McDonald’s was also on the receiving end of negative publicity. During March this year, the Sunday Times food section undertook the “big juicy burger hunt.” This was the blurb for the competition:
“Welcome to the fast-food beef-burger Idols, where patties, buns and relish decide a contestant’s fate rather than the toneless warbling of fame-hungry South Africans. The competition hopefuls come from across Johannesburg, vying for the coveted title of best burger in the city.”
The brands that were surveyed included the newly-opened Burger King, Steers, Wimpy and Burger Perfect. Steers won by a large majority with Burger King second, McDonald’s, Wimpy, Burger Perfect fared badly.
According to the tasters, Steers fed the “raging beast within” with “quality burgers.” The first line of the verdict on McDonald’s praised the brand for “the golden arches” being the “first thing that comes to mind when you eat of these burgers”. Unfortunately the verdict that followed was not as positive – “the patties are wafer thin and give the impression that they could be made of anything”.
The small ray of hope for Mickey Dee’s is that the Wimpy burger is “dire, tasteless, badly made and inexplicably expensive”. And “if ever you are faced with the choice of a meal from Burger Perfect or a bowel resection, choose Burger Perfect.”
So what to do? Act quickly but strategically and cleverly.
What not to do?:
– Don’t take the newspaper and/or journalist on.
– Don’t slap them with anything legal – they are used to it and it fuels the fire (and not in a positive sense).
– Don’t use advertising to get your message across – it is expensive and not effective. Consumers are not stupid – they know it is paid for. Besides, the bosses of the newspaper involved will rub their hands in glee at the prospect of receiving your money for something that doesn’t even help your cause.
McDonald’s clearly sat down with various experts and worked on a plan to try and minimise the damage caused by the survey. The result: a positive article about the burger outlet in the same newspaper that contained the negative article and without the company having to pay a cent for advertising.
The food section of Sunday Times a few months later contained a full page article entitled ‘Behind the Golden Arches’. The blurb reads: “McDonald’s invited a Sunday Times journalist to a ‘no-strings-attached’ tour which included the company that is the sole supplier of beef and chicken to McDonald’s, and its Ellis Park McDonald’s outlet. The aim was clearly to show the journalist that the processes applied at the company are state-of-the-art and very technical to ensure the quality of their products.
A spokesperson from McDonald’s’ corporate affairs commented on the process as well as various experts in the food industry. The newspaper had to ensure that it gave a balanced view-point but the positive comments far out-weighed the negative (see below). The message from McDonald’s was clear:
– The processes in place to ensure the quality of the food are rigorous and carefully monitored;
– The food is safe and affordable;
– People come to McDonald’s as an indulgence and because it tastes good.
The positive approach out-weighed the negative (again see the table below).
In summary this is an extremely good result for McDonald’s in the fight against the numerous negative mentions it receives – a lot better than Robertsons who used advertising to try and calm the storm.
The reputational challenge is that the battle to maintain a positive image is ongoing and there is never a time that you can rest on your laurels. All brands should remain vigilant because like the proverbial ‘bad egg’, any negative aspects of your brand could crop up at any time and will be exploited by the media.
Negative comments about McDonalds in the article:
1. “McDonalds takes a lot of flak – newspapers published stories about them and British teen suffered a heart attack after eating chicken nuggets, chickens from Brazil alive in cages the size of A4 sheets of paper and a human meat scandal.”
2. “We feared for our health, imagining three-headed cows, chemical processing and pink slime.”
3. As we entered the factory we were “sceptical”.
4. “I don’t like that the fries are made in palm oil nor that the oil is re-used six times.”
Positive comments about McDonalds in the article:
1. South Africans “guzzle” eight million of the 68 million McDonald’s’ burgers eaten per month around the world.
2. An upmarket restaurant in Johannesburg and Woolworths who we trust for their high standards, shares a supplier of beef and chicken with McD.
3. McD spokesperson comments that “the blandness (I would have used another word) of the burger is regulated. Big Mac must taste the same all over the world and is subject to quality checks.”
4. The British teenager ate nuggets at many other places over and above McD and “who eats nuggets every day from birth?”
5. McD discloses “where its food comes from, how it is prepared and what it is in it” including “100% lean beef”.
6. The factory is “pristine” and there were “no carcasses lying around”.
7. The meat is “quality” and is a “decent cut for burgers because of fat content”.
8. We use “A-grade meat” and McD is “all about efficiency and high demand”.
9. At the outlet “we discovered that there is a slick production line.
10. The reason McD is successful is that it is “safe and affordable”.
11. “We would not risk making anyone sick, especially children”.
12. People come to McD for “indulgence” and because “it tastes good”.
Grace Belger heads Meropa’s media training division.
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