When the discussion of PR’s brand-building power comes up, McDonald’s invariably surfaces as a classic illustration. McDonald’s used PR before advertising to build its image as America’s hamburger king, establishing the reputation of its firm, Golin/Harris, in the process. But for a company long associated with positive brand PR, McDonald’s has ironically developed a reputation for poor media relations.
When the discussion of PR’s brand-building power comes up,
McDonald’s invariably surfaces as a classic illustration. McDonald’s
used PR before advertising to build its image as America’s hamburger
king, establishing the reputation of its firm, Golin/Harris, in the
process. But for a company long associated with positive brand PR,
McDonald’s has ironically developed a reputation for poor media
Now, as McDonald’s searches for a new VP of US communications, it’s also
finding its way along a new media relations path, one stressing more
Early impressions from reporters who cover or have covered the company
are that media relations are improving. But so are McDonald’s financial
results. It recently reported second quarter net income of dollars 518.1
million compared with dollars 357.2 million in the same period last
year. System-wide sales from company-owned and franchised restaurants
rose to dollars 9.92 billion from dollars 9.25 billion.
The real test of the company’s new media relations strategy will come at
the next downturn in business, when critical stories questioning its
business strategy start appearing in the business and consumer
The company has had a troubled media relations history over the past
decade, with reporters complaining that it tended to shun those who
wrote unfavorable stories and often ignored requests for interviews and
Says one veteran Chicago business writer who covered the burger giant in
the late 1980s: ’Who hasn’t had a bad experience with McDonald’s?’ Adds
another reporter who has followed the company over the years: ’They tend
to stonewall. I think you have to prove yourself to them.’ Still another
former reporter for a major media outlet recalls trying for two years to
get an interview with a senior company official.
Leaving a poor past behind
That checkered media relations past may be hurting efforts to fill the
VP spot. Local PR pros are wary of joining a company that has been known
for adversarial press relations, a PR veteran says.
Jack Daly, McDonald’s group VP of worldwide communications, responds
that, ’I’m inclined to talk about where we’re going,’ not where the
company has been. And that future will include better media-response
efforts, thanks to a re-organized communications structure, and via the
communication skills of new chairman Jack Greenberg, Daly says.
About nine months ago, McDonald’s communications were put into a
corporate relations group that also includes consumer services,
government affairs, charities and community affairs. Communi-cations now
reports to the company’s general counsel, Jeff Kindler. A corporate
media center was established, consolidating what had been marketing
communications, general media relations and financial business media
The result? ’I think we’re more responsive,’ Daly says.
Positive financial results have given McDonald’s a much-needed respite
with the press in order to implement these changes. ’Media relations is
always much easier to do when the business is strong,’ he notes.
But when business flagged in recent years after several well-publicized
missteps - the McLean Deluxe at the start of the decade, the Arch Deluxe
at mid-decade and its Campaign 55 that offered Big Macs for 55 cents - a
bunker mentality overtook McDonald’s media relations efforts, reporters
and others say.
’McDonald’s is always a company that shoots the messenger,’ says Richard
Adams, president of San Diego-based Consortium Members, a group of 350
dissident McDonald’s franchisees. Adams’ group captured major media play
when it held a press conference before McDonald’s 1997 annual meeting to
air its complaints about the company.
A Chicago PR pro familiar with McDonald’s media relations efforts during
those trying times notes that at a company as well-known as McDonald’s,
’there are huge media relation challenges. The objective isn’t to be the
media’s best friend.’ Not returning reporters’ phone calls often was
just a matter of prioritizing resources, he says. ’Important as the
media relations function is, the resources available to deal with that
level of calls is not limitless,’ he claims. Still, reporters remember
who returns phone calls. One, who covered McDonald’s until recently,
notes that during her time on the beat, Adams’ group was much quicker to
call back reporters than was McDonald’s.
A new attitude
Another reason that media relations at McDonald’s deteriorated may have
been that its product PR was succeeding in garnering coverage for
products like the McLean Deluxe, which ultimately failed, hurting the
credibility of company PR efforts. PR cockiness also may have set in.
Rolling Stone reported in late 1997 that a McDonald’s PR pro boasted to
a university class that all he needed to do to get positive exposure for
a new product was send out free Big Macs to local media and radio
Tom Harris, marketing PR guru and a former principal at G/H, wrote about
PR efforts for the McLean Deluxe and the Arch Deluxe in his first and
second books. Of the latter he recalls, ’people were beginning to make
excuses for it by the time I finished writing the book. The product
obviously did not live up to the hype.’ Harris, who emphasizes that he
never worked with McDonald’s during his days at G/H, notes that for many
years, ’the basic problem has to do with food.’
Greenberg has addressed that issue by pushing a new cooking system,
dubbed ’Made for You,’ designed to improve food preparation. Harris also
credits Greenberg and Daly with opening up to the press. ’My impression
is that Jack Greenberg is much more accessible not only to the media,
but to the whole franchise organization’ than his predecessor.
Dick Gibson, a Wall Street Journal reporter who has covered McDonald’s
for the past decade, agrees. ’They do have a new top management team,
and I think that’s made a difference. I think that the access to the
media has improved in recent months. The new CEO has been a key player
Even critic Adams says he’s noticed some improvement since PR began
reporting to legal counsel Kindler, but he also recalls that Greenberg
was among the most vocal of McDonald’s media critics. While both
Greenberg and Daly are veterans of the dark days of the Golden Arches’
media relations, they seem to be bringing a new attitude to their jobs
today. Says Daly: ’We’re being as proactive as we can be. I believe in
meeting with the media in the middle of the road.’
Whoever emerges as the winner in the company’s latest PR search will
need to ensure that McDonald’s doesn’t stray from this new media