Actually both state McDonalds should have been more active with AdAge berating McDonalds for not attacking the methodology of the study, or mobilising its allies.
Journalists love the aggressive approach, in contrast to most crisis management theories that advocate dialogue and taking a human approach.
PR Week [subscription] reported that Merial was responding to the recent foot and mouth investigation by “using retained agency Blue Rubicon to fight its corner.” Although this appears to be journalistic rhetoric as the statements on the company’s website are calm and considered.
But are the appeasers right? Eric Denzenhall, who recommends McDonalds should use techniques to attack the Stanford University study, carries the tag, the “pit bull of public relations“. No doubt this reputation and the tough talking attracts clients and Denzenhall is upfront about its strategy:
We perform all the functions of a communications firm but are not a traditional public relations agency. Our mission is more often to protect reputations and assets in the face of allegation or peril, than to disseminate “good news.”
Denzenhall has an intermittent blog at The Huffington Post, where he seems to believe most critics of big business are motivated by envy and that it is the job of the PR consultant to keep such people away from the rich and mighty.
This approach supports the critical perspective of PR’s role as part of the dominant powerbase in society, seeking to protect the interests of business, politicians and the mainstream media against any “public interest”.
Others adhere to the “corporate responsibility” argument that sees PR taking a stance in advocating change in organisations. In this case, McDonald’s counters (in media reports not on company website) that it:
is only advertising Happy Meals with white meat McNuggets, fresh apple slices and lowfat milk,” and that the company’s recent promotion linked to the popular animated movie Shrek was McDonald’s “biggest-ever promotion of fruits, vegetables, and milk — another indication of our progressive approach to responsible marketing.”
For Stanford University, this study (press release) has been a publicity coup – gaining worldwide attention. McDonald’s is an easy target – especially for journalists who prefer a good fight to a reasoned argument.
But, if the calmer approaches demonstrated by McDonalds and Merial seem to allow the critics to damage their reputations, should we approve of the pitbull PR approach?
Provided Merial isn’t complicit in the recent cases of foot and mouth, it is right to present the facts. It does need to build a positive reputation with the public in future, so that trust in the brand is built.
For McDonald’s, being aggressive is definitely not the answer. But, it does have a problem in that there is too little public trust making it it is easy to believe the company is manipulating “pester power” – since it has built its brand on aggressive marketing strategies, targeting pre-schoolers.
It needs to win over parents and other advocates by demonstrating it has seriously changed its values and does genuinely support healthier eating (whilst not denying the right of a good burger as part of such as a diet).
Changing values is never going to be an easy option, and living by them takes courage. McDonalds does need to ensure it takes control of the way it is perceived, but should continue to avoid using its might to satisfy the media desire for a full on fight.