Signs of the times:
- Jeb Bush goes on the offensive, attacking Donald Trump, but does so with a video on the Internet. Trump returns serve via Twitter and Instagram.
- Blue Bell Creameries, founded in 1907, goes all-out on social media to hail the return of Blue Bell Ice Cream to shelves in select markets after a nationwide recall in April due to listeria. For several weeks leading up to the August 31 resumption of deliveries, Blue Bell has been whetting fans’ desire on social media with photos of its ice cream and details about the company’s progress.
- One of the nation’s top college football coaches, Alabama’s Nick Saban, begrudgingly admitted that he’d have to begin tweeting. He called it “a sign of the times” in fact. “I don’t really want to [tweet], but I’m probably going to have to,” Saban told ESPN’s Paul Finebaum in an interview that the sports leader has been teasing in anticipation of its weekend airing (talk about a company that knows how to re-purpose content). A few years ago Saban vowed never to use social media. His shift likely is a reaction to NCAA rule changes that allow increased contact between coaches and recruits via Twitter direct messages. (Yes, I know, Saban is unlikely to tweet himself; he’ll have a staffer or student do it for him. He can afford such luxuries on his $7 million per year salary.)
These examples of well-established people and companies accepting change led me to think how some of our PR colleagues continue to have to evangelize about the utility of social media to senior executives. I had that experience a few years ago, during a brief break from journalism—and I worked at a well-known technology company.
This ruminating about peoples’ horizons, technological and cultural, led me to the yearly Mindset List that three Beloit College professors publish about the incoming freshman class. While it’s meant to help older professors relate better to college students, it also can be helpful to communications professionals, who may have to reach a younger market and/or work with millennial colleagues.
This year’s full list can be found here, but I’ll share a few examples. One of the most shocking for me is this guidance: “Students heading into their first year of college this year are mostly 18 and were born in 1997.” Can that math be correct?
Each item on the list proper begins with “Since they have been on the planet” and then adds something that those not of the millennial generation might have failed to realize. So, since they have been on the planet…”Hybrid automobiles have always been mass produced.” Some others: “Four foul-mouthed kids have always been playing in South Park.” “Color photos have always adorned the front page of The New York Times.” “The Airport in Washington, D.C., has always been Reagan National Airport.” “Teachers have always had to insist that term papers employ sources in addition to those found online.” “Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic have always been members of NATO.” “If you say ‘around the turn of the century,’ they may well ask you, ‘which one?’” And one of my favorites: “Their parents have gone from encouraging them to use the Internet to begging them to get off it.”
The point? Clear communications includes remembering that millennials, and others, might not understand your cultural references. That means we probably need to think at least twice while crafting our messages. Look, if Coach Saban can make adjustments to communicate better, we can, too.
Why is it still newsworthy when PR is called to the rescue or joins a strategic team? “Pet Company Hires PR Firm to Clone Calico Cats” or “PR Counselor Recommends AshleyMadison.com to C-Suite” – now those would be worth writing about. To wit: there is still a jaundiced view of PR. To utilize PR is sometimes akin to admitting you’ve reached The Last Resort.
Part of the reason for this mentality is the media’s view of PR – the same journalists creating a news story out of a non-story are the journalists whose respect for PR is wavering at best. Surely there are outstanding relationships between PR pro and journalist. Enough rotten apples and we become spoiled, in a bad way.
Another reason PR is not yet elevated within an organization is a lack of strong and ongoing advocacy for PR. PR professionals are the go-to storytellers, writers, advisors, counselors, organizers, implementers and strategists — right?
Some heavy lifting is needed. We might start by dispelling these 5 myths about PR:
PR is nice to have but not need to have. The truth is that the strongest brands and reputations deploy smart public relations tactics that are seamlessly integrated into the core mission and culture.
PR people suck at math and finance. PR execs need to add metrics and measurement to the business conversations and hold PR accountable in front of senior management. We talk about measurement among ourselves – time to apply what you know to the conversations you have with the C-suite and marketing colleagues.
PR should not be seen — and needs to stay behind the scenes. Of course not. You have the advantage of context and clarity – there’s no reason you can’t be the spokesperson and certainly no reason why an organization shouldn’t be proud to have a smart PR counselor backing its reputation.
PR’s main role is media relations. Media relations is a subset of PR and not the end-all, be-all. While strong relationships with journalists are critical for many PR people, the Public in Public Relations includes those hanging out on social media, the employees in your organization and the people on Wall Street and Main Street. Change the conversation from positive media coverage to positive coverage.
What other myths would you add to the mix, and what are your suggestions for busting them?
– Diane Schwartz
Let’s follow each other on Twitter: @dianeschwartz
Subway must want this year to end quickly. Jared Fogle, the company-created celebrity spokesperson, this week agreed to plead guilty of traveling to engage in illicit sexual conduct with a minor and the distribution and receipt of child pornography, according to the Associated Press. Sales were already falling. Now, with Fogle’s child pornography case, Subway has a worst-case-scenario PR problem.
Make that “public relations” problem.
For non-practitioners, “PR” has become synonymous with spin, obfuscation and corporate-sponsored scientific studies designed to facilitate sales. This perception reaches the C-suite, where PR is sometimes designated as a nice-to-have rather than a must-have.
Until a Jared Fogle moment comes along.
Fogle’s case sends shivers beyond Subway’s corporate headquarters in Connecticut and 21,000 franchises, to any organization that hovers over the border between a good reputation and a tarnished reputation. (In an upcoming issue of PR News’ weekly premium publication, editor Seth Arenstein will share possible ways forward for Subway from public relations thought leaders.)
That’s where all organizations exist—near that border. From the CEO to the customer service representative to the supplier’s floor manager in another hemisphere, every individual in or connected to an organization has the potential to damage it with acts done, words said or written, images shared. PR as it’s commonly perceived is merely a tourniquet, but thoughtful, effective public relations has clarity of purpose. It’s relating to the public, communicating with people, listening and responding—in good times and bad.
If you’re a public relations professional, you know this already, but do the executives who approve your budgets know this? Those executives need smart, effective public relations practitioners in their highest-level business meetings—before their Jared moment crashes through the window like a wrecking ball.
—Steve Goldstein, @SGoldsteinAI
We’ve reached the point in summer when the accumulation of heat and humidity slows the reflexes and thought processes. This is when stories about shark attacks dominate news cycles. Calculated, outrageous statements by politicians running for national office barely raise an eyebrow.
As professional communicators know, it always takes a lot to cut through. In midsummer, it seems, unless you’ve got a video of a great white shark chomping on a surfer’s leg, you’re better off waiting until just after Labor Day to launch a campaign or pitch journalists.
You may not have that privilege, though. If you’re on the clock, your job is to get coverage for your organization, attract new customers to your brand or donors to your nonprofit, protect and enhance corporate reputation—despite the season and capacity of living creatures to assimilate anything new in consistent 91 degree heat.
So, how to cut through with your brand messages when sluggishness reigns? A few suggestions:
1. Use yourself as a test case. Unless you live in San Francisco, where it’s currently a foggy 61 degrees (and my old hometown and destination on Aug. 5-6 for PR News’ Google Boot Camp and Big 4 Social Media Conference), you’re either dragging your knuckles on the melting sidewalks outside or shivering inside as your sweat freezes from the blast of office air conditioning. What kind of content—aside from anything NSFW—is catching your eye on social, in your email inbox, on any kind of screen or printed material? This being summer, it’s likely that anything to do with vacations, time off, food, cold beverages and socializing with friends are the best lures. Try to find ways to connect your communications and business goals with where people’s desires are, if not their physical selves.
2. Find an excuse to use pictures of animals. I can’t tell you how many speakers at PR News conferences have closed their presentations by saying “and if all else fails try this,” and then shown a shot of a cute puppy, kitten or marmot. They’re only half-joking. Pictures of animals will always cut through. It’s no accident that Cecil the lion has shoved aside Donald Trump as the number one news story here at the end of July. Someone in your organization has a new kitten or puppy. Now is the time to put that critter to work.
3. Follow my example and make sure you include “shark” in any headline and “shark attacks” in any opening paragraph.
—Steve Goldstein, @SGoldsteinAI
The lines are blurry. As a communicator you are usually selling something – an idea, a story, an interview to the media, a budget, a campaign. To close on that effort – to get the story, win the account, score a larger budget – is a similar feeling your Marketing counterpart has when her campaign idea is approved or when a customer buys the product based on her messaging. And the salesperson down the hall from you? He is always prospecting, aims to be in front of clients or at least on the phone with them, understanding their pain points and their spending limits.
These three levers of Communications – PR, Marketing, Sales — are at their best when they’re working together, not separately. Most practitioners and strategists agree with the premise, but the underlying pain points, frustrations, budgetary constraints, conflicting goals may stop the three from even wanting to work together. I’ve posed the question in a previous post, Will PR and Marketing Get Married One Day? A lot of you responded and as a whole we’re in favor of this matrimony. But how about we go on a few dates first?
The best communicators will be the ones who have a firm grasp on Marketing, who partner with Sales to help close business, and who are pushing for consistent messaging across this spectrum. If you shy away from Sales or snub your nose at Marketing (that department that steals some of your budget), then you will be OK, possibly. That is to say, you can get by. But to be an extraordinary communications executive you need to spend some time in their shoes. Here are three easy things you can do in the next 30 days to narrow the gap and broaden your organization’s (and your own) opportunities:
Lead a Sales Call: Try to sell something to a client: ask your sales dept if you can sell your company’s service or product to one prospect. Set up the appointment, do your research, lead the meeting, close the business, send out the proposal, wait for the signature. Sometimes you’ll be waiting longer than expected for a signed contract and that’s part of the process and why the rewards taste so sweet.
Be a Marketer: Sit in on Marketing meetings and listen without your PR hat on. Understand how they measure success and manage budgets. Ask to work on a campaign in which you need to partner with the PR team. It’s not always easy to collaborate and see the other side. As a marketer, you may want to spend more on b-to-c advertising while PR is pushing for a media relations push with the trade press. Find common ground and share in the hits and misses.
Break Bread & Barriers: Set up monthly Integrated Communications Breakfasts. An early morning meeting of the minds where you are fresh and prepared could work wonders. Share current initiatives, report on performance of campaigns, ask for help and guidance. This will increase transparency and lead to more collaboration.
There’s nothing like coffee and bagels to smear away the friction that exists when three departments are used to eating alone.
– Diane Schwartz
The moving company that assisted with our house move last week sent us a hard-working crew. Hauling boxes and furniture to and fro, they didn’t spend much time chatting, but when they did they usually framed it in a question: “How am I doing?”
When Danny, the head mover, first asked me that question I thought he was asking how I was doing. After all, moving out of a house is stressful! Then I realized he wanted to know if he and his crew were meeting my expectations. Were they careful, efficient, polite? Danny wanted this feedback. He stood in my kitchen holding a big box labeled “Dishes,” and looked me in the eyes as he awaited my reply.
“How am I doing?”
After hearing from me that he was doing a great job, he and his crew continued the laborious task ahead of them. A few hours later, Danny asked me the same question and this time I thought harder about it and provided some specific feedback having to do with not scratching a certain wall. Over the course of this 10-hour whirlwind round-trip relationship we had with our movers, “How am I doing” was asked at least a handful of times.
In the course of a week, a month, a year, how often do you check in, one on one, with your customers, business partners, clients, journalists, colleagues and stakeholders and as them “How am I doing”? We are more accustomed to asking “How are you?” then we are “How am I doing?” It seems the former is more about them and the latter can appear self-serving or insecure. But what you’re really asking is “Are you satisfied and can I do better for you?” Of course, you have to be prepared to heed the feedback, which is sometimes not what you expected. That’s the point – and it’s well worth the heavy lifting afterwards.
– Diane Schwartz
Write exceedingly well and you’ll increase your chances of succeeding in your workplace and in the job market. Write poorly and you’ll increase the burden of work for your colleagues and be seen as potentially expendable in economic downturns. That’s just how it is.
This is doubly true if you’re a PR professional or journalist. In both cases, good writing ability should be a point of entry and not an aspirational goal. If you’ve ever edited PR copy or journalism professionally, you may have learned that this is sometimes not the case. PR and journalism attracts people who say they love to write, but many of them apparently feel it’s fine to wing it with grammar, spelling, capitalization and punctuation.
While they wing it, others labor to clarify their sentences and paragraphs, rid them of errors and keep their style consistent. Wing it with your writing and you’re narrowing some career horizons.
Many PR pros know this to be true—we can see this at PR News from the many people who sign up for our Writing Boot Camps. Judging by the availability of online grammar tools, insecurity about writing ability goes far beyond PR and journalism to the general workforce. One such tool, Grammarly, scored a lot of attention online last week when it published an infographic called “The MLB Grammar Power Ranking,” in which it ranked Major League Baseball teams by their fans’ ability to write with the fewest grammar, punctuation and spelling errors. (Cleveland Indians fans came in first, with 3.6 errors per 100 words; New York Mets fans were last, with 13.9 errors per 100 words.)
The infographic and ensuing media coverage—including this post—has raised awareness for Grammarly, which offers three paid plans in which you can use its online program to proofread your copy, improve your word choices, avoid plagiarism and minimize grammatical and punctuation mistakes.
I’ve never used Grammarly. Perhaps I should. I am convinced, though, that this is not the entryway to the kind of excellent writing that’ll make a difference in your professional life. It’s probably a very useful tool, but depending on technology is not the way.
Commit to being your own writing teacher first, then pay for the tool and sign up for the class. Don’t wing it with punctuation, capitalization and grammar. Get copies of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, The Associated Press Stylebook and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary and never stop referring to them. Be your own editor and keep rewriting your sentences. Develop that ability first, so that when a trainer, author or computer program exhorts you to avoid walls of text and make every verb count, you’re already on the endless road to writing a little bit better with every passing week.
—Steve Goldstein, @SGoldsteinAI
It’s not every day that you get a free scoop of ice cream with your bacon and eggs, unless you’re eating breakfast at Lou Mitchell’s. The iconic Chicago diner has been surprising first-time customers and delighting return diners with this extra touch. When the waitress handed me the check, then asked if I wanted some ice cream, I looked around as if I had won the lottery. The last thing I really wanted was ice cream after a hearty breakfast but I didn’t realize how much I loved being surprised by the offer.
Surprise: it’s surprisingly powerful!
When was the last time you offered your brand’s version of ice cream with breakfast? When you provided an unexpected benefit or show of appreciation for your stakeholders, be it a customer, a reporter, an employee, an investor, a client? Even the most beloved brands shouldn’t assume they are good to go with their customers, who are just a click or step away from turning their attention to your competitor. MasterCard is just one of many smart brands employing “surprise and delight” to build customer loyalty. Through its “Priceless Surprises” campaigns, cardholders have randomly received a gift, such as a meeting with Justin Timberlake, and are encouraged to send surprise gifts to friends and family (using MasterCard).
When Tania Luna, co-author of “Surprise: Embrace the Unpredictable and Engineer the Unexpected,” keynoted our PR News Digital PR Conference earlier this month in Miami, attendees expected her to talk about how to communicate via surprise tactics given the name of her new book. What the audience didn’t expect was to be handed a pack of Pop Rocks and asked to place the fizzy crystals in their mouth and create a symphonic sound with fellow attendees, with Luna as the conductor. “At the count of 3, this side of the room should start swirling their Pop Rocks in their mouth,” Luna instructed. Amazingly, the attendees exploded with glee and there was a communal sense of pleasant surprise at the activity, the nostalgic quality of Pop Rocks and the silliness they found themselves in. They weren’t expecting this activity at a PR conference. Surprise!
In a recent interview with PR News’ Steve Goldstein, Luna offered 9 surprise tactics and implored communicators to remember that acting human is different than being human. She suggests that communicators “scriptease” to build trust with stakeholders, especially with the media. Put your scripted pitch aside and just have a conversation with the reporter like you would with a friend.
And never stop surprising and delighting: To wit, if you’re waiting in the long line at Lou Mitchell’s or as you’re leaving the restaurant, there’s an endless bowl of fresh donut holes for the taking. Just another way for this brand to sweeten the experience.
- Diane Schwartz
Years ago—during a time before the Internet—PR and marketing executives, not to mention advertisers, were talking about the future of television, specifically the television commercial. VCRs (remember them?) were coming on the scene, and the business community was becoming antsy about the possibility that viewers would tape shows and skip commercials.
When business leaders gathered for conferences, many a session centered on whether or not television commercials, media’s lifeblood, were going to die. The consensus was the VCR would not kill them, although the impetus was on brands and their advertising agency partners to create better, more compelling commercials.
Skip to today. While the quality of television commercials generally may be only slightly better than it was years ago, we have a new phenomenon—people watching commercials for their entertainment value. And not just during the Super Bowl.
This phenomenon is related to what W20 Group president Bob Pearson calls “the new owned media” (see PR News, June 1, 2015). Today, brands house content not only on their Website but also on partner sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn and YouTube. Brands hope, of course, that fans share the message on their personal sites. In fact, it’s more than a hope: spreadable media should be a top priority of PR practitioners in the networked society, MIT’s Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford and Joshua Green argued in “Spreadable Media.”
This leads to opening YouTube and finding suggested ‘Videos of the Day.’ During a recent weeknight, the featured video was part of a series of spots starring former “Saturday Night Live” regular Darrell Hammond (see above) as a slightly goofy, musical version of the late Colonel Harland Sanders, the KFC patriarch who passed away more than 30 years ago. The effort is part of a $185-million resuscitation of the brand in the U.S., which changed its name from Kentucky Fried Chicken to the more-healthy-sounding KFC in 1981, one year after Sanders died, aged 90. While his visage remained conspicuous, the Colonel hadn’t been featured in a KFC ad in some 20 years.
As you might expect, the ads have found fans and detractors. Hammond’s portrayal of the Colonel as a bit of a jokester is disrespectful and far from the truth, says former Kentucky Governor John Y. Brown Jr. In fact, Brown says, the Colonel was a deadly serious hombre when it came to his fried chicken. Stories abound about Sanders, a perfectionist, driving round the country in a Cadillac or Rolls Royce to make appearances on behalf of Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises. His visits generally included a spot check. Heaven help the franchisee who was not up to Sanders’s standard. Pots and their contents would fly.
When Sanders made commercials or appearances on behalf of the brand he founded he was unscripted and all business, Brown argues. Always attired in a white suit and black string tie, he joked with small children only. In fact, the Colonel’s temper with adults was infamous. His language could get so blue it would make truck drivers blush.
Governor Brown should know—he bought the Colonel’s secret recipe of 11 herbs and spices in 1964 and turned Sanders’ thriving business into a national and later international icon. In fact, the biggest market for the Colonel’s chicken is, get ready for it, China. General Tso must be turning over in his grave.
But back to the short ads featuring Hammond as the Colonel, created by the current KFC owner, Yum! Brands. They’re good PR, touching many of the points PR and communications pros have been espousing in PR News and at prnewsonline.com to keep brands, especially older ones, relevant. Here’s why:
- Local: The ads are found where the audience lives. Sure, they’re on television, but your blogger was introduced to them via YouTube on his mobile phone. As soon as you’ve watch one, a series of new ones appears in the right-hand side of your screen.
- Conversational: In the digital age, people—particularly millennials—want brands to talk to them, to have a human face. These new spots are nothing if not a conversation with the consumer. Taken together with a planned renovation of KFC’s nearly 5,000 U.S. restaurants that will feature images of and quotes from Colonel Sanders on new red-and-white walls, it sounds like KFC is creating a Colonel Sanders cult of personality.
- KFC primed the pump a bit, though. Look at this short 2014 video about Maurice, a KFC cook. It’s conversational, equates a face with the brand and provides a backstory about how KFC’s chicken is made. [Incidentally, the backstory of how the Colonel’s recipe has been kept secret for nearly 80 years could make a terrific video. There’s a hint at :30 of this video about where the recipe resides.]
- Humorous: While Governor Brown might be right—that the Colonel would disapprove of how his image is being used—PR pros have been urging brands to lighten up by carefully injecting humor and fun into their messages. Humor is at the core of these short videos that feature Sanders cackling like his chickens and even singing. Let’s face it—portraying him as a kindly, grandfatherly type was a sound creative and PR choice. Having Colonel Sanders launch into an expletive-loaded tirade over lumpy mashed ‘taters just wouldn’t cut it today.
- Short: In our attention-span-shortened world, KFC’s ads are less than 2 minutes in length. They’re bite-size nuggets on your mobile phone or computer. (Yes, I know what you’re thinking, if only the Colonel’s chicken was similarly as digestible.)
- Nostalgic: This is a bit controversial, using nostalgia to attract millennials. Similar to McDonald’s’ menu, KFC’s choice of fare has grown considerably. It now includes items that would surprise even the Colonel, who was a fried chicken, mashed potatoes & gravy and biscuits kind of guy. [Rumor is he ate his chicken every day for years.] Unlike McDonald’s, which recently resurrected a redesigned Hamburglar perhaps to spur nostalgia, KFC arguably possesses a real history that people can relate to. It’s the Colonel’s story, which is a hardscrabble one, coming up as a penniless kid with an elementary-school education and finally finding success in his late 60s.
- Another piece of history that KFC owns is its cooking method. KFC’s fried chicken still is made using the Colonel’s secret recipe and closed-frier method. In that sense, its decision to return to the Colonel, the one who brung ‘em to the dance and made Kentucky Fried Chicken the top brand, seems logical. But will millennials respond? These ads are a good start, but there’s a way to go yet. A 2010 survey by USA Today showed most young Americans (aged 18-25) didn’t know who Sanders was. Half thought he was a fictional character.
That leads to the larger business story. Why has KFC parent Yum! decided the brand needs a revamp? The quick answer is that it no longer is the top fast-food chicken brand in the U.S. That crown belongs to Chick-fil-A, which topped the Colonel’s sales in 2013, and did so with fewer restaurants.
Like McDonald’s, KFC is going to be making changes large and small to see if it can get back on top. As with the burger chain, there will be advice-givers aplenty. While many have counseled both brands to feature healthier items, some urge them to stay the course, making the case that their food might be greasy, fatty and sodium-laden, but it tastes good and is no less healthy than other fast-food establishments.
Another reason to return to Colonel Sanders? The company admits that KFC has lost its way a bit and wants to return to a time when it was #1, and that includes Colonel Sanders personally making sure things were being done the right way. Yum hopes it will be infusing KFC with the Colonel’s spirit of quality, integrity and hard work. Needless to say, KFC can no longer rely on Colonel Sanders to make spot visits to franchises, but perhaps Darrel Hammond as Colonel Sanders can surprise a few franchisees with a surprise inspection and throw over a bowl or two of gravy. I’m licking my fingers at the thought of it.
Seth Arenstein is Senior Editorial Advisor to PR News. Follow him on Twitter: @brahmsandmahler
—inscribed on the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi
In 1967, in what seemed like a far less-complicated time, a McDonald’s TV commercial, borrowing the tune from “Down by the Riverside,” claimed its burger restaurants were “my kind of place, a hap, hap, happy place, a clean and snappy place.”
Today McDonald’s is a public company, a global behemoth, with nearly 2 million employees serving 68 million customers daily in some 118 countries and territories.
Last year, for the first time in nearly two decades, the company’s quarterly sales fell. That downturn mirrored what has been happening in McDonald’s’ country of origin. U.S. same-store sales at some 14,000 McDonald’s have been mired in a five-year slump.
As a result of the sales downturn, every move this traditional Wall Street darling makes as it attempts to return to glory is scrutinized, picked over by restaurant insiders, not to mention financial analysts and the media, PR News.
Whether it’s simplifying what some believe has become an overly large menu, changing prices, serving breakfast all day or becoming more transparent about its food suppliers, the former hap, hap happy place is becoming a tes, tes, test case. As such, PR pros are anxiously watching how the world’s largest burger chain attempts to reinject gold into its arches and how clearly it communicates those efforts.
The corporation’s biggest move to date had president/CEO Don Thompson, 51, announcing he was stepping down in late January. Steve Easterbrook, a 48-year-old Brit and one of Thompson’s former lieutenants, has replaced him.
In a PR News piece last month that discussed Easterbrook’s first visible moves—closing 350 restaurants—it was argued that changing consumers’ perception of McDonald’s will be critical to a turnaround. Mark Renfree wrote:
“McDonald’s product isn’t the problem; it’s how customers perceive the Golden Arches. The brand has become synonymous with unhealthy eating habits and horrifying factory farms.”
One of the great things about watching McDonald’s as a case study is that for every solution proposed, there will be someone who takes the opposite view.
Embracing Fat, Grease and Friendly, Clean Environs
While Don Draper and later Peggy Olson once counseled their clients saying, “If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation,” this may prove difficult for McDonald’s, according to Professor Adam Galinksy of Columbia University’s business school. In a book to be published in September, Friend and Foe: When to Cooperate, When to Compete, and How to Succeed at Both (Crown Business/Random House), Galinsky and co-author M. Schweitzer discuss whether brands should fight to change public perception or concede on certain points. Successful brands have done both, they argue. Can McDonald’s win by admitting that the burger chain ‘is what it is’?
Several brands have responded to less-than-flattering perceptions by changing their names—the Patagonian toothfish resurfaced as Chilean Sea Bass, Philip Morris morphed into Altria, Kentucky Fried Chicken modified slightly to KFC. McDonald’s is an icon, so a name change would appear to be out of the question, Galinsky says.
McDonald’s is fighting on select fronts and is succeeding. To combat the pasting its food has received on social media, McDonald’s has chosen to go to battle in the arena where the damage was done. McDonald’s has used social media to make a foray into transparency. Its “Our Food. Your Questions” has attracted more than 31 million social media views, outdistancing successes the campaign has enjoyed in other countries.
On the other hand, attempts at changing perception also have hurt McDonald’s. Adding healthier items to its menus, some argue, has damaged one of McDonald’s’ hallmarks, fast service.
This leads to the thought that perhaps part of Easterbrook’s resuscitation plan should include McDonald’s embracing its image. “We’re a hap, hap, happy place offering good-tasting food that perhaps is not the healthiest choice, but who cares? We serve you quickly, inexpensively and in a clean, kid-friendly atmosphere.”
For years PR pros have advocated a version of this prescription, even in the volatility of the digital age—have a sense of humor about your brand, own your image. In a situation where your brand is the punch line of jokes on social media, if they constitute a relatively minor threat, you could do worse than to laugh, Ivan Ristic counseled recently.
Healthy Eating or Pass the Coke?
Yet the McDonald’s case may be different. There’s deep, well-documented resentment against McDonald’s on several fronts and healthy eating indeed has risen in the public’s awareness, else Coca-Cola wouldn’t be reeling also.
Still, Americans have a long way to go before we can be said to be healthy eaters. We may be health-conscious, ie, we know we are ingesting too much sodium, fat, sugar and calories and getting too little exercise. For some reason, however, those misgivings recede quickly as we devour a few more of those delicious French fries and slurp an icy, cold Coke.
Another thing to consider, with all the moaning and groaning about lower sales and reduced income for McDonald’s and Coca-Cola, Americans likely will drink more than 100 servings of Coke this year and McDonald’s boasts a consistent average of selling 75 burgers per second worldwide. These brands are not going away soon.
Still, it won’t be easy for McDonald’s and Easterbrook to laugh at and accept the perception of the brand as a purveyor of unhealthy fare. As noted above, sales are down. Shareholders and franchisees, owners of 80% of McDonald’s restaurants, are looking to Easterbrook for solutions. Of course this could be a situation for PR and communication pros to come to the fore, crafting a strategy where McDonald’s embraces its unhealthy image, but in a subtle, constructive way that helps boost sales.
Will McDonald’s admit to what it is and own its image, warts and all, or try to revise its public perception as a purveyor of healthy comestibles? It’s clear what Galinski recommends. “Stigmatized companies aren’t better off hiding from their characteristics,” Galinsky says. “They’re better off owning them.”
Most likely Easterbrook’s rescue plans will include elements of both approaches. In any case, McDonald’s will supply plenty of food for thought in the weeks and months ahead. Let the fun begin.
Seth Arenstein is Senior Editorial Advisor to PR News