While many media outlets are covering fast-food chains over the obesity issue and their revenue, restaurants are looking to play up other angles.
It might be an unhealthy relationship, but America's love affair with fast food shows no signs of abating, despite some heavy media coverage of the role burgers, fries, and shakes play in the nation's expanding waistline.
Fast food - or the quick-serve restaurant (QSR) industry, as it calls itself - encompasses everything from McDonald's and Burger King to specialty chains like Nathan's Famous and Cinnabon. It's a staggering $123 billion annual industry, whose sheer size alone commands the attention of reporters.
"More and more people are consuming more and more meals at the keyboard and at the dashboard, so QSRs remain very relevant to the media," notes Kim Francis, account supervisor with Marc Public Relations, which represents Checkers Drive-In Restaurants, owners of the Checkers and Rally's chains.
But most of this coverage is on the business pages, where restaurant and hospitality beat reporters cover everything from the latest quarterly numbers of new products to ad campaigns.
Winning over food critics
Where QSRs face some resistance is on the food page - serious food writers and restaurant reviewers have traditionally held to the perception that there's a huge gulf between fast food and fine dining. "We have real problems getting food critics to help us review new products or menus because it's fast food," notes Sherri Daye Scott, editor of the trade magazine QSR.
But Brian Luscomb, division VP for corporate communications for Jack in the Box, says some food pages are beginning to acknowledge that many of their readers are regular consumers of fast food and will publish the occasional piece. "It really depends on how unique the product is and if it fits into a trend that is of interest to the food editor," he says. "Jack in the Box introduced Jack's Ultimate Salads, which coincided with the heightened attention on healthier fast-food fare, and we received considerable media attention for that. But it's generally the business reporters who are most interested."
Ellen Hartman, a 20-year veteran of food service PR and currently president of the Atlanta office of Weber Shandwick, suggests that part of the problem lies with many of the chains, which tend to focus their PR on everything but the taste of their food. "Smart QSRs will not just put their CEOs out there, they'll put their chefs out there, as well," she says. Noting that a client, Arby's, has placed its executive chef, Calvin Harris, on the Food Network to talk about product development, she says, "These chefs are culinary trained and are doing many of the same kind of new menus and new products as other chefs."
Francis points out that fast-food chains also can leverage their advertising and sponsorship programs to boost their profiles outside of the business pages. Rally's and Checkers are the official burgers of both the Indianapolis 500 and Brickyard 400 auto races, Francis says, adding, "We receive coverage of that in the sports pages, the restaurants trades, and sports trade, such as Street & Smith's SportsBusiness Journal."
The obesity issue
In recent years, however, the story QSRs can't seem to get away from is the obesity crisis. From books like Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation to the new documentary Super Size Me, in which director Morgan Spurlock gained 25 pounds by eating nothing but McDonald's for a month, QSRs are in the spotlight over nutritional quality.
Many QSRs have tried to get ahead of this issue by varying their menus and by stressing the need for their customers to live a healthy lifestyle. McDonald's, for instance, not only discontinued their Super Size menu, but also hired Oprah Winfrey's trainer, Bob Greene, to design some new products. It also has introduced a new adult Happy Meal, complete with water, a salad, and a pedometer. And Arby's hired a registered dietician to serve as a spokesperson to not only talk about its new salad line, but to give advice on dining out at QSRs while on a diet.
"We counsel our food-service clients to have choice, to offer foods that are more nutritious or that tack on to the low-carb craze," Hartman explains. "But we also have community events and sponsorships that tie the chain in with exercise because the key message is balance and a healthy lifestyle."