The end of the marathon ’McLibel’ trial last week will have come as
a relief to McDonald’s for whom the case had become a running sore in
public relations terms.
Much has been written about the folly of pursuing such determined
defendants with no assets and plenty of time on their hands. But few
could have predicted that it would develop into a cause celebre which
would gain worldwide publicity.
McDonald’s made a stand on principle not only to disprove a particular
set of damaging allegations, but also to deter others in future. To the
extent that the judgment has nailed most of the allegations contained in
David Morris and Helen Steel’s leaflets, their strategy must be
considered to be a success.
But it was a success achieved at a high cost - and not just
Some of the allegations were upheld by the court, and the length of the
case meant that even those that were disproved were hanging unresolved
over the company for two years.
Even now, it seems unlikely that this ruling will finally draw a line
under the matter. Morris and Steel, high on the oxygen of publicity,
grandly announced that they may pursue the matter in a higher court. And
on the day the judgment was announced other leafleters were out in force
outside McDonald’s HQ, while the stateless refuge of the Internet
continues to provide a haven for its enemies.
Furthermore, and to the protesters’ glee, this episode has reinforced
the unfortunate impression the giant McDonald’s is prepared to flatten
anyone in its path, including penniless postmen and gardeners.
As crisis expert John Stonborough pointed out this week there are times
when companies have to stand up to this kind of attack. Yet the
inevitable conclusion is that McDonald’s misjudged its response by
wheeling out a howitzer to slay a gnat.
The relationship between giant corporations and protest groups has
It is no longer viable for companies to retire behind the walls of their
fortresses and drop boiling oil on the pickets outside. Far better to
use your own PR skills to rebut allegations, and defuse protesters’
attacks by being seen to address their concerns.
When Greenpeace forced Shell to turn the Brent Spar platform around and
abandon plans for dumping it at sea, the fact that the protesters’ facts
were later revealed to be inaccurate was largely irrelevant. Brent Spar
proved that companies cannot ignore protesters who now have the PR
capability to force them off course. McLibel has shown that they cannot
expect to deal with such protests by brute force.