The wisdom of linking your brand to a news story was raised anew earlier this month after McDonald’s tweeted in support of Charles Ramsey, who told reporters that he was “eating my McDonald’s” when he saw kidnap victim Amanda Berry trying to escape from a Cleveland home in which she and two other women had been held captive for a decade.
While the details of the Cleveland kidnapping story are particularly ghoulish, McDonald’s is standing by its decision to tweet on behalf of Ramsey, who has been hailed as a hero despite reports that he has a criminal record that includes domestic violence.
“In this situation, we heard from thousands online that were asking McDonald’s to acknowledge the situation that had unfolded,” said Molly McKenna Jandrain, director of public relations, McDonald’s USA, in an email. “We heard them and responded. Each case is different, but listening and responding in real time are core guiding principles that we will continue to follow.”
She added: “Out of respect for the victims involved, as well as Mr. Ramsey, McDonald’s will be reaching out to Mr. Ramsey directly.”
With social media now permeating nearly every aspect of public relations, the episode provides communicators with a signpost on when to refrain from aligning their brand with a news story and when to jump into the fray.
McDonald’s “should have put more thought whether [it] should be there in the first place,” says Scott Ziegler, social media strategist at Makovsky. “Brands have to be very careful because getting involved a lot of times can look very contrived.”
He adds that McDonald’s “felt pressured” by consumers to chime in about a news story, which can be slippery slope when it comes to brand reputation.
A CASE-BY-CASE BASIS
“Brand managers should stay in control and shouldn’t get caught up in trends like ‘real-time marketing,’ feeling like any mass media mention of their brand is an opportunity to capitalize on,” Ziegler says. “Looking at it through that lens, I think McDonald’s maybe should not have gotten involved.”
Call it the dark side of so-called “newsjacking,” when companies want to piggyback on a mainstream news story but don’t consider the consequences.
Ziegler stressed that affiliating your brand with a major news story via social channels should be assessed on a case-by-case basis, but any PR assessment should include three strategic guidelines:
▶ Don’t react just because people online are clamoring for it: Before you make a decision, look at your brand’s objectives and personality to see if commenting is appropriate.
▶ Sleep on it: Despite the constant rush online, losing “12 hours isn’t going to kill a brand’s reputation, and something might come up later,” Ziegler says, referring to reports about Ramsey’s criminal record. “When you wake up the next morning, things can change and it might reflect how you react.”
▶ Stay out of it, unless your brand can help: There may not be much return in tweeting about something that everybody’s in agreement about, Ziegler says. “It may make your brand look human, but I don’t think people are going to notice it if you don’t say anything,” he says.
“He adds, “Unless you can find a legitimate way to help—setting up a foundation or directing someone to an organization where they can get more information on a subject—tweeting ‘We sympathize,’ doesn’t really help the situation.”
McDonald’s got a bit of a grilling after the fast-food giant tweeted on behalf of a Good Samaritan who unwittingly helped free the Cleveland kidnap victims. PR experts say the company would have been better off saying nothing.
IS THIS NECESSARY?
Al Ries, chairman of marketing agency Ries & Ries, says the episode is a reflection on what’s happening throughout marketing communications precincts.
“Too many companies are operating social media without a grown-up; there needs to be more PR supervision,” says Ries, who is co-author (with Laura Ries) of “The Fall of Advertising and The Rise of PR.” When considering whether to comment about a news story, “Companies need to constantly ask themselves: ‘Is this something we really need to be involved in or can we duck it?’” Ries adds.
Alan Sexton, executive VP of communications and digital strategy at Global Strategy Group, says PR pros should pay close attention to the fast-food chain’s tweet on behalf of Ramsey as it relates to their social media strategy.
“It shows us what sorts of reactions to expect, and helps us explain the likely consequences and benefits of different actions to business leaders,” he says. “Smart PR pros will use this and other examples to conduct scenario planning with their own clients, so that lots of thinking and prep has already been done before a mini-crisis like this springs up.”
Al Ries, email@example.com; Alan Sexton, firstname.lastname@example.org; Scott Ziegler, email@example.com
Staying quiet is a perfectly good response for a brand when the subject is so questionable in nature and so grotesque to the imagination that it’ll likely make for a lose-lose situation.
A company should not jump to respond simply based on peer pressure or the belief that it would work against it not to speak. For PR execs managing brands in problematic situations, I offer three tips:
1. Evaluate brand affiliation versus brand erosion: If the brand has become a big part of the story, then you must evaluate the gain from affiliating the brand to a couple of news cycles versus eroding the brand from taking part in a questionable story. Remember that adding multiple clarifying explanations as to how the brand is positively involved in an otherwise largely negative scene may make it difficult for the consumer to understand how you’re not taking advantage of the situation.
2. Laying low doesn’t mean out of the picture: Just because you may not use the opportunistic moment of a Charles Ramsey-like sound bite doesn’t mean the public didn’t hear what he said. Quietly reaching Ramsey, out of the limelight and not via a 140-character tweet, is more than acceptable. This would allow a different story to bloom from a follow-up that is on the down-low.
3. Sometimes the best interview is the one you don’t give: During a crisis, many will leap to providing information, but the most important element of crisis communications is gathering the facts while reaffirming your company’s core values and commitments, not just through words, but also through action. A company needs to act to demonstrate the values that led it to success in the first place.Being an accidental participant in a story that’s claiming the front page and the lead item on the evening news may be tempting for a brand, but it doesn’t help further a company’s strategic communications efforts. People see right through it—and it’s likely to cause even more harm to the brand’s reputation.
Rosanna Fiske is executive VP and chief strategy officer of República LLC. She is a former CEO of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA).