McDonald’s PR Woes Go Global

McDonald’s workers in the UK staged a walkout this week, joining a global day of protests against pay inequity. Similar protests were reported in the US, France, Germany, Chile and Brazil.

The burger giant has also been hit with legal action in the US, with a lawsuit alleging rampant harassment at a Michigan McDonald’s franchise that went ignored by management and proved “emblematic” of a broader problem at the multinational firm.

This latest filing joins some 50 sexual harassment complaints filed against McDonald’s in recent years, according to the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund working on the suit.

In response to sexual harassment claims, McDonald’s has claimed to have overhauled its harassment training and policies in recent years, and says it is working with its franchises to roll out the updates. Lawyers working on the suit, however, say their clients have experienced little change.

“They are the definition of window dressing,” says Gillian Thomas of the American Civil Liberties Union.

McDonald’s has appeared to have an even worse response to this week’s walk-out, arguing that strikers demanding an end to “poverty pay” rates represent only a “tiny proportion” of its workforce. Tiny or not, McDonald’s workers made a strong showing at the London demonstration.

“There are a lot of workers who are struggling to pay their bills and get by day to day,” said Lewis Baker, a London employee, “If we got £15 an hour, it would have a massive impact – I would be able to afford to pay my rent, to pay my bills, go on holiday and have some kind of work-life balance.”

Melissa Evans, a fellow McDonald’s worker, argued that the fast food employees deserved “the same level of respect as everyone else.”

This latest incident is just the latest wave of brand damage thrown at McDonald’s over the last two decades; “McJobs,” “McJunk,” and “McLibel” have all become common descriptors for the company as a global employer. The brand is now synonymous with smooth marketing and poor food, cultural imperialism and the exploitation of low-wage workers.

At the same time, however, the company has proved more than efficacious in deploying a classic public relations revamp: the Ronald McDonald House Charities scheme is one such example, painting McDonald’s as a community contributor rather than corporate fatcat.

Hence why the response of McDonald’s to this latest wave of controversy is all the more inadequate: the first step of a PR crisis to take responsibility, and respond to feedback. It is vital that today’s brands acknowledge public concerns, and respond to the right conversations. Press releases and posts on social media should be used to set a new tone, not bow to pre-existing negativity.

By attacking the strength of the current movement, which is by necessity an attack on its own employees, McDonald’s has chosen to enter the stage primed for a battle. Given the current wave of anti-establishment sentiment the world over, this is not a battle it can easily win.

Ronn Torossian

Ronn Torossian is the founder and CEO of 5WPR and one of the most well-respected Public Relations professionals in the United States. Ronn is the author of "For Immediate Release: Shape Minds, Build Brands, and Deliver Results with Game-Changing Public Relations."

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