NEWS ANALYSIS: How McDonald's took on its critics

The global food chain has hit the headlines by offering A-levels and reporting 10 per cent growth in European sales. UK V-P of comms Nick Hindle tells Clare O'Connor what he has learned from his time at the firm.

Nick Hindle
Nick Hindle

1 Invest in research. ‘Be clear about the situation you're in and ident­ify what you need to change,' adv­ises Hindle. He and his team hired acc­ounting consultant Accenture to look at the potential cost of McDonald's reputation on the fast-food giant's sales. ‘We did quite a bit of work digging into the reputation of McDonald's in 2004 and 2005,' he says. ‘In 2003 the obesity crisis became really big news, and insight was absolutely critical.'

The restaurant chain brought in Burson-Marsteller CEO Mark Penn's market research company Penn, Schoen & Berland to canvass the views of customer and stakeholder groups. Hindle says: ‘You really need that killer insight to bring management together for a long-term reputation recovery plan.'

2 Prove that you're changing. ‘If your business isn't demonstrating recovery, it's going to be tougher,' warns Hindle. ‘Turn your business plan into a corporate narrative for areas that define your reputation. At McDonald's we have four areas: food, which is overwhelmingly the biggest; people; the environment; and the community.'

Hindle specifies that McDonald's does not see its community eng­agement as purely a PR initiative: ‘Our community beh­aviour defines us - it's a key reputation influencer.'

Hindle says the fast-food chain's proof of change included lowering the salt content of menu items, implementing a pilot project on waste reduction and petitioning for a new definition for the ‘McJob'. He adds that proof of an improvement in business performance is also important for fixing reputation.

3 Turn up to the debate. ‘You've got to pick your fights, and we've had a lot to choose from,' laughs Hindle. ‘Of course, turning up means taking risks.' Hindle cites the company's greatest comms risk to date as 2006's live televised debate on BBC's Newsnight between UK CEO Steve Easterbrook and Eric Schlosser, well-known anti-junk crusader and the author of Fast Food Nation.

The exch­ange was the first time Easterbrook had been fielded in the UK media. The first comment under the film on YouTube reads: ‘Wow, this Brit is a terrible debater,' but, as Schlosser obs­erved, it showed that McDonald's was willing to engage with its detractors.

‘Answering those tough questions demonstrates a belief in your brand,' he says. Hindle believes in the old PR adage about the importance of joining a debate: ‘If you don't say it, someone else will.'

4 Treat stakeholders like shareholders. ‘We've always been clear about the media, politicians and opinion-formers that have the most influence over our reputation,' says Hindle. ‘We have our
"A List" - critics as well as stakeholders. It's about building relationships with these people. It's important to minimise surprises.' Hindle includes Schlosser in his ‘A List' despite the
author's disdain for McDonald's and its practices. ‘He's a reputable commentator,' explains Hindle.

Similarly, in a feature in The Guard­ian last Monday, a quote from regular food industry critic, City University professor Tim Lang, showed that McDonald's had successfully courted one of its key opinion formers: ‘I was sceptical when McDonald's started altering its menus and playing around with greener options, but they've hardwired it into their systems.'

5 Make your employees spokes-people. ‘Identify your most bel­ievable spokespeople,' advises Hindle. He says that with a pol­arising brand such as McDonald's, it is crucial to find effective communicators within the organisation and train them for media roles. ‘Cross-match your spokespeople with your "A List".

Find the individuals with the right exp­ertise,' he says. Hindle is adamant that the leader of any company is its most valuable spokesperson. ‘Steve has been incredibly influential,' he says. ‘He's straightforward, fully engaged and available to the media and politicians.'

Hindle adds that spokespeople should be identified at every level: ‘We had a 20-year-old in The Times recently, talking about how he was taking additional courses to get into university.'

Hindle adds that the company's road to recovery can be attributed to far more than a savvy comms initiative. ‘To put yourself out there, to be innovative, takes commitment. That is not a PR move. It's a business move. It is evidence of a business that is changing.'

Nick Hindle will be one of the speakers at the PRWeek Awards Winners Forum, to be held on 30 June-1 July. See for details of free delegate places.

REVERSAL OF FORTUNE - McDonald's UK's journey back from reputation hell

‘McLibel', or McDonald's Restaurants v Morris & Steel, saw the chain take on activists who had been handing out leaflets on its allegedly unethical practices. While McDonald's won, the case caused major embarrassment.

‘McJob' was added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, prompting an outcry from McDonald's corporate offices. McDonald's also announced its first annual loss, resulting in the closure of 175 restaurants and pulling out of three countries.

Super Size Me film-maker Morgan Spurlock subsisted on McDonald's food alone for a month and documented the results, which included liver damage. The backlash caused McDonald's to remove its ‘Supersize' products.

Steve Easterbrook became UK CEO of McDonald's. The Watford native has since been credited for the chain's turnaround in this country over the past two years.

McDonald's garnered praise for switching to organic milk and using coffee beans supplied by The Rainforest Alliance. The chain's introduction of free Wi-Fi , and its decision to turn chip fat into biodiesel to fuel its lorries, resulted in a wave of positive coverage.

The chain was given the status of an awarding body, meaning it will be able to train UK staff up to A-level equivalent. Easterbrook announced plans to create 600 UK jobs this year.

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