Newsmaker: Bill Whitman, VP of US communications, McDonald's

The VP of US communications at McDonald's uses fresh PR tactics to boost the iconic brand.

In May, Bill Whitman, VP of US communications for McDonald's, was a keynote speaker at the Hispanic PR and Social Media Marketing conference in Dallas. He touched on how the company is reaching out to the Hispanic community, including a partnership with the Hispanic Scholarship Fund and its diversity programs for its owner/operators.

But outreach to diverse communities is only one element of McDonald's communications, which spans 14,000 restaurants in the US alone. Over the past 18 months, McDonald's has reinvented itself as a destination, not just a fast-food restaurant. Its specialty McCafé coffees were introduced in May 2009 and, this summer, the company debuted Frappés and smoothies.

Whitman, a 12-year company veteran who began his current job in September 2008, is behind communications surrounding this shift.

"McDonald's is really a customer-driven business," Whitman says. "The best way we as communicators can facilitate achieving our goals is by engaging audiences in the McDonald's experience."

As more customers choose to eat outside traditional meal times, McDonald's restaurants are opening earlier and staying open later, including some 24-hour locations. This, Whitman says, allows customers to go beyond a transaction-based interaction and enjoy more of an experience.

The McCafé launch also fits the company's plan to become more of an experience. Among other tactics, the company infiltrated New York Fashion Week in February 2009, handing out more than 24,000 cups of various hot and cold drinks.

"It was one way to experience our brand in a different manner," Whitman explains.

Jan Fields, president of McDonald's US and Whitman's direct boss, explains: "We work hard every day to meet the changing needs and desires of all our customers. Communications has a seat at the table to discuss the best ways we can get to the customer."

Whitman is "my eyes and ears," she adds, emphasizing that McDonald's needs communications to make sure all its restaurants in the US execute the same business plan.

Synchronized strategy
This focus on the McDonald's experience also demonstrates a shift in communications, from tactically focused activity in years past to now being more concerned with strategy and alignment across the company.

Whitman works with a team of 28 in McDonald's Oakbrook, IL, headquarters, but there are regional communications pros across the country. His team works well, he says, because it has a specific internal alignment division, which keeps all communicators across the US on the same page.

"He inherited a strong team and he's made it even stronger by evaluating where the resources were and repositioning people," adds Fields, highlighting the company's philosophy of "aces in their places."

Whitman works with a traditional internal communications team on management communications and senior leadership support; a PR and media relations team focusing on marketing and promotions; the public affairs division; and a group that focuses on stakeholder engagement.

His goal for the team is to continue to focus on strategy and engagement, while making sure it doesn't become complacent.

"As communicators, we serve in a unique role because we touch so many different aspects of our business," he says. "We need to be able to anticipate trends. We need to be advocates for our customers. We need to ensure we are coming to the table with ideas that are solutions-oriented, aligned with our business plans and priorities."

PR legend Al Golin famously made a cold call to McDonald's founder Ray Kroc in 1957 about doing work for the company. His firm has worked with it since. Now chairman of GolinHarris, McDonald's national AOR, he agrees that nothing can be taken for granted.

"Bill is always open to new ideas and good ideas," Golin says. "McDonald's has changed so much over the years that you have to keep it fresh and current."

Golin adds that the agency is currently working with McDonald's on a large nutrition program. With health, wellness, and obesity major issues of interest with the media and public, McDonald's often finds itself at the center of the debate given its place in the industry.

Whitman, however, notes that health and wellness is not a brand-specific challenge, but rather a global issue. The company, he notes, provides nutrition information for its products on a variety of platforms, ranging from in-store tray liners to mobile devices.

"We want customers to feel good about the choices they make," he says. "It's crucial they have the information to make those choices."

Golin adds that the agency is working to tell McDonald's side of that story better. "We're beefing up by hiring more people who have had experience in the nutrition area," he says.

McDonald's does not shy away from engaging critics over issues such as health, wellness, and beyond. It has a robust Moms' Quality Correspondents initiative, where McDonald's engages mothers to educate them about its food products and nutrition information.

Recently, Whitman and Fields met mommy bloggers at its headquarters to give them a behind-the-scenes look at the company.

"It was important to allow these influential mommy bloggers to come into McDonald's, ask tough questions, see for themselves, and be able to report on what they saw, unfiltered, unbiased, but in their own words," he says.

Whitman adds that engaging critics is all about listening. That, he notes, leads into the McDonald's strategy of being there for customers when and where they want them.

Engaging multiple audiences
"Communications today is about helping us connect the dots and engage our audiences, whether internal or external," he adds. Internally, that means driving the message around alignment and making sure the company is moving in the right direction. One area where McDonald's has led is diversity. The company represents the communities it serves, Whitman says, and that is reflected from senior executives to crew members working in restaurants.

That diversity leads to multicultural outreach, and McDonald's actively targets Hispanic, African-American, and Asian-American communities with programs such as McDonald's 365 Black and a partnership with the Hispanic Scholarship Fund. It employs Burrell Communications as its African-American consumer market PR agency, IW Group for Asian consumer market PR, and VPE PR as its Hispanic consumer market specialist.

McDonald's is also continuing to expand its social media activity, bringing on Rick Wion as social media director in March. Social media fits its strategy of listening to consumers, and the company intends to become a leader in the space.

"For two-plus years, we have been engaged in social media activity," says Whitman. "The more we can build credibility, the more we can establish a greater presence and transparency in the social media space. It builds trust and long-term relationships that can't be achieved through other forms of communication."

Golin also salutes the emphasis McDonald's puts on PR and community engagement.

"Despite the fact there are few people in the world who don't know them and they have this huge advertising budget, they still feel PR and community relations is a part of their DNA," he says. "It is a great thing - especially if you're their agency - that they give it that kind of priority."

Social media successes at McDonald's

Foursquare. On April 16 (4/16= Four Squared), McDonald's surprised 100 customers who checked into McDonald's on Foursquare with a free meal. As buzz grew, Foursquare check-ins at McDonald's restaurants for that day rose 33%

Twitter. With @McCafeYourDay and @McDonalds, the company interacts with 35,000-plus followers regularly. Whitman says even average consumers are interested in day-to-day operations, such as marketing, menus, and community involvement

Mommy blogger outreach. In June, 10 influential mommy bloggers and their families came to the McDonald's headquarters, had a sit-down with US president Jan Fields, spoke to McDonald's chief culinary director Chef Dan Coudreaut, and visited a Ronald McDonald House charity in the Chicago area

Bill Whitman:

September 2008-present
McDonald's USA, VP of communications

McDonald's USA. Media relations director (2003-2006) and senior director of media relations and public affairs (2006-2008)

McDonald's Corp. Began as media relations supervisor, rose to media relations manager (1999), senior manager of media relations (2000), and media relations director (2003)

Fleishman-Hillard, account director

Exxon, director of comms and public affairs

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