Critical films don't faze fast-food giants

Fast-food's big players are staying the PR course as yet another industry exposé hits theaters

Fast-food's big players are staying the PR course as yet another industry exposé hits theaters

For the past couple of years, fast food has been right up there with the oil industry as a target for negative press. So it seems somewhat surprising that, as the theatrical release of the film based on Eric Schlosser's book Fast Food Nation approaches, two of the big three fast feeders - McDonald's and Wendy's - claim they aren't concerned about any negative media coverage the film might stir up. In fact, they say, currently they don't even have plans for any proactive PR initiatives.

"There hasn't been a need for it yet," says Denny Lynch, SVP of communications at Wendy's. "It is a movie, not a documentary, and consumers clearly understand that movies are fictionalized. I think you have to understand that the public is intelligent enough to know movies are... to entertain."

Scott White, president of Brand Identity Guru (BIG), a Boston-based marketing and branding agency, recognizes that these companies have initiated a lot of activity to promote healthier items on their menus, but still thinks that a little proactive PR would be wise.

"Certainly I would say that downfield blocking would help, but I think they've done so much of it ever since Super Size Me came out," White says. "But obviously, I think it's a good idea to do some press on their healthier foods if at all possible. I think they're doing it now to the extent that they're going to do it."

Lynch notes that other movies about hot- button topics such as oil - Syriana - and pharmaceutical research - The Constant Gardener - and how they singled out and challenged the tactics of a specific industry, didn't have the seismic effect on their industries' reputations that many thought they would.

"Those movies came and went across the transom of the American public and what happened?" Lynch asks. "We have not seen any outcry from our customer base, friends, consumer base, suppliers, or franchisees that have given any indication that this is registering."

Lynch also says that Wendy's will probably not be the primary focal point of any backlash that may occur.

"Who is the lightning rod in this story? McDonald's is," Lynch answers.

White agrees. "McDonald's will take the brunt of it because they're the biggest brand," he says.

Walt Riker, VP of corporate communications and media relations at McDonald's, says the company's focus will remain where it has always been.

"Our results show that when we focus on our restaurants and our customers, we will do well," he says. "The four-year run we've had on our business is the best we've ever had."

"The key is not losing focus on your core business," he notes, adding that key communications points have been jobs, quality, and safety of food.

"We have media days and fact sheets that are available through our Web site, as well as platforms that will afford us any opportunity to talk about what's important to McDonald's," continues Riker. "We cannot be overly concerned about anyone else."

Still, White says waiting for a backlash is a mistake. "I think it's a bad tactic," he stresses. "I hear the strangest things from companies. They all work so diligently to build their brands and when something like this comes up that can threaten their brands they act unintelligently. I see it all the time and it doesn't surprise me. It's just one of those things."

Edna Johnson, SVP of communications at Burger King, told PRWeek that she could not comment on whether or not the company would be launching any PR initiatives due to quiet-period restrictions surrounding its IPO.

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