Monday, February 20, 2012

Social Media PR Disasters: #McDStories

This PR crisis may have come and gone within a few hours, but it’s still important. Why? Because it happened to McDonald’s, the sixth most valuable brand in the world. The story demonstrates that no one, not even a global restaurant giant, can control conversations on the internet.

The Brand
·      14 million Facebook likes
·      294,000 Twitter followers
·      3.4 million YouTube views

The Incident
McDonald’s had been running an effective Twitter series called #MeetTheFarmers, where actual suppliers talked about their pride in their work and loyalty to the Golden Arches. These were “promoted tweets,” paid by McDonald’s to appear on the Twitter homepage. One tweet, quoting a farmer, included a new hashtag: “ ‘When u make something w/pride, people can taste it,’ - McD potato supplier #McDStories.” That hashtag also appeared via paid promotion on the Twitter homepage. But the company never defined what #McDStories was suppose to mean. Enter McDonald’s critics – and apparently there are a lot of them.

The Problem
People quickly began recounting their bad experiences with McDonald’s and tagging it with #McDStories. The restaurant’s own content was buried tweets referring to food poisoning, vomiting, and weight gain. “Fingernail in my Big Mac once,” read one tweet. “Never ate there again and became a vegetarian,” read another. “These #McDStories never get old, kinda like a box of McDonald’s 10 piece Chicken McNuggets left out in the sun for a week,” read a third.

The Response
McDonald’s pulled the promoted tweet within two hours. Social Media Director Rick Wion released a statement that included, “With all social media campaigns, we include contingency plans should the conversation not go as planned. The ability to change midstream helped this small blip from becoming something larger.” Wion pointed out that there were around 1,600 negative tweets about McDonald’s that day, out of almost 73,000 total mentions, putting the “disaster” in some perspective.

The Result
Though the crisis only lasted for a few hours, media outlets from the Los Angeles Times to London’s Daily Mail, jumped on the story of such a high-profile PR failure. I find it interesting that McDonald’s #MeetTheFarmers hashtag was untouched in all the madness. A few days later, McDonald’s launched another promoted hashtag, #LittleThings, apparently unaware that it was already being used by DoubleTree Hotels.

The Takeaway
Sure, you’re no McDonald’s. Still – how can you avoid a similar PR disaster?

- Focus on Your Fans
McDonald’s promoted #McDStories to the entire internet, inviting anyone who visited the Twitter homepage to post their thoughts. While I admire this, there’s no reason the company couldn’t have simply used the hashtag in tweets to its almost 300,000 followers. That audience would have been more likely to share positive stories.

- Manage the Message
McDonald’s second mistake was introducing the #McDStories hashtag without any explanation, and leaving the meaning vague. I bet just about everyone in the world has had an experience with the restaurant, and some of them are bound to be bad. On the other hand, #MeetTheFarmers is very clearly defined, even to the point that it doesn’t really invite people to use it. How many people know the McDonald’s farmers?

- Know When to Fold ‘Em
McDonald’s could have tried to steer the conversation, allowing the hashtag to continue for hours or even days. Social Media Director Wion saw that, while #MeetTheFarmers was getting the company’s message across, McDonald’s was paying for people to publicly criticize its brand. And there was no dignified way to explain what #McDStories was intended to mean. Rather than fight a high-profile, losing battle, Wion made the right call and chose to end the campaign.

While this crisis is over, it goes to show that social media PR disasters can happen anywhere, at anytime, for any reason. Whose hashtag will be next?

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