For a corporation with as much heft as many of its best customers, McDonald’s’ attempts at fighting negative sentiment can often come up against accusations of bully boy tactics.
For McDonald’s marketers, striking the right balance is a constant struggle in the face of government messages about healthy eating and a nation of increasing waistbands.
But with criticism in the social media arena against the fast food behemoth reaching fever pitch after Jamie Oliver’s ‘school dinners’ campaign, with a galvanised public venting its spleen with increasing bile, it was only a matter of time before the hamburger giant bit back.
With the rumour mill in overdrive about McDonald’s bid to control the blogosphere by recruiting a private army of 400 incentivised bloggers, The Times published an article describing a whitewash attempt that involved McDonald’s bribing a large team of influencers with the corporate equivalent of a free lunch. Reporting that the company was flying bloggers to glitzy parties, and introducing them, somewhat ironically, to popstars such as Salt N’ Pepa, the article went on to claim that McDonald’s were looking to recruit one million bloggers over the year to combat the negative sentiment Jamie Oliver had garnered for the company.
The description of McDonald’s attempts to muscle its way into the social media space was in such bad taste, we decided to blog about it, but no sooner had we posted our intention to write this article, McDonald’s director of social media in the US Rick Wion got in touch.
Laying his chips on the table, Wion quashed claims the bloggers were recruited as a reactive firewall post Jamie Oliver. “This is not a campaign nor is it related to external pressures; this is a community for bloggers to learn more about McDonald’s and for McDonald’s to learn from them."
Launching in August last year, Family Arches is an online community for parenting bloggers that was set-up, at least initially, to provide access for bloggers to get access to information about McDonald’s food, nutrition and charitable efforts. Since then, the community has grown to about 400 bloggers, many of whom, according to Wion, are stay-at-home mums, typically the most vociferous opponents of the fast food world. “We’re looking to hear real experiences and real concerns,” says Wion. “We never expect posts from them and we certainly don’t expect a positive response if they don’t have a positive experience.“
So far, so easy to swallow. But just how are the company encouraging parents to comment on a fast food forums? Rejecting claims that McDonald’s is paying for positive postings, Wion admitted some perks. “We treat bloggers in the same way we treat the media. Sometimes we invite them to events. If we do, we’ll sponsor their travel, after all, we are paying for their time.”
In addition to being taken to the odd event, influential bloggers are treated to periodic offers and new product samples, but full disclosure is expected. “Social media and blogging is not about control,” says Wion. “And honestly, bloggers that could be controlled or bought aren’t going to be very successful because readers won’t trust them.”
However, earlier comments from McDonald’s Josh Anis suggested bloggers who didn’t tow the company line would be penalised:
“We looked at their social profiles and found out who they were. Now we’re giving them information so that they can advocate for us. And if they start doing stuff we don’t want, we are going to take action.”
But according to Wion, these remarks were taken out of context. “We’ve never taken action against a blogger. We’ve had to correct false information once.”
For Wion, it is this access to correct information that’s paramount for a company determined to find its place in a new information age. “We launched this community, in part, because many bloggers had been coming to us requesting access to more information than was published on our corporate web site.” But it’s information provided by the bloggers that is proving just as important for McDonald’s. “This community provides opportunities for feedback from the bloggers so that our most influential customers can have the direct ear of our corporation.”
Rather than attempt to control the social sphere, McDonald’s have demonstrated a number of positive things you’d expect from a massive brand that struggles with negative sentiment. Firstly, they’re listening. Secondly, they understand that if they are to battle against disparaging remarks around their food, they can’t just throw cash at the problem. But they can help educate those talking about it. McDonald’s have a massive challenge on their hands, it’s refreshing to know they’re going about tackling it in the right way.
By Pete Wood, Account Manager, STEAK