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McDonald’s, Starbucks: Lessons learned from social media controversies

For better or worse, social-media platforms have replaced the town square, serving as venues where restaurant brands can interact with customers and fans immediately.

While branding and community building is the goal for restaurant chains, the forums can also quickly spread gossip, misinformation or outright lies, as McDonald’s and Starbucks learned in recent weeks.

McDonald’s counters hoax
McDonald’s found itself embroiled in controversy the weekend of June 11, when a staged photograph made the rounds on Twitter under the hashtag “Seriously, McDonald’s?” The picture showed a sign on the door of a McDonald’s unit that read, “As an insurance measure due in part to a recent string of robberies, African-American customers are now required to pay an additional fee of $1.50 per transaction.”

While the claim was absurd at face value, the hoax still pushed McDonald’s into full-blown crisis management mode, said director of social media Rick Wion.

“We first saw this on Friday, but at first glance it was so preposterous that we didn’t react immediately,” Wion said. “On Saturday morning it started gaining traction according to our monitoring tools, so we got some folks together and figured out our reaction strategy.”

McDonald’s began its response by repeatedly tweeting that the picture was a hoax and emphasizing the brand’s long history of inclusion and diversity.

“Our strategy was to set the record straight, then through the next two days reaching out to people we saw posting the picture and continuing to inform them,” Wion said.

The brand picked the most influential Twitter users to put the word out to the greatest number of people, he said. McDonald’s directly contacted users who had posted the photo and who had the most followers or were getting significant retweets.

By Sunday, the mainstream media was asking McDonald’s about the picture. That response strategy included saying the word “hoax” every three words, Wion said.

“Major papers or TV stations will pick up on a trending topic and want to be talking about what’s relevant,” Wion said, explaining why a PR problem on Twitter can spread out of hand. “We wanted this issue to go away because it’s false and nothing good can come of it, but we also need to respond to the folks who would start talking about it anyhow.”

This wasn’t the first time McDonald’s had seen the fake photo, he added. More than a year ago, the picture appeared up on a message board.

“We know as a company that rumors and hoaxes have a nasty habit of coming back,” Wion said. “A couple of months from now, a whole other set of people may not realize this has been debunked and may pick it up again. We need to make sure we use whatever we learned from this to be ready for next time, whether it’s this issue or something similar.”

Starbucks in crisis-management mode
Starbucks had to put out digital fires last week when a customer posted an open letter on her personal blog alleging homophobia by three Starbucks employees during an incident involving a gay barista at a Long Island unit.

The customer, Missy Alison, called the incident she witnessed in the Centereach, N.Y., Starbucks, “one of the most brazen and unapologetic displays of homophobia I have ever witnessed in my entire life.”

When the website Gawker picked up the letter and it began spreading across the blogosphere, Starbucks responded on its corporate blog with a post titled, “Our dedication to embrace diversity,” to clarify that the isolated incident was unacceptable to the company.

“We are disheartened by the allegations reported in an East Coast Starbucks store and are taking immediate measures to investigate and take any steps necessary to make this right,” wrote Kalen Holmes, the company’s executive vice president of partner resources. “The actions reported do not correspond with our values, who we are as a company or the beliefs we try to instill in our partners.”

Holmes added that Starbucks has supported the gay community by offering domestic-partner health benefits for employees, working with the Human Rights Campaign, and organizing and participating in events for local LGBT groups. Starbucks’ corporate Twitter feed stated several times that day, “We have zero tolerance for discrimination of any kind.”

How brands can deal
Long before a situation like this occurs, restaurant companies should have a policy that uses social media to disseminate the brand’s statements regarding the incident, and also leverages the company’s relationships with mainstream-media outlets, said Nick Powills, chief executive of No Limit Media Consulting.

He recommends establishing separate social-media profiles that follow and are followed only by members of the media.

Powills said well-prepared restaurant chains have tools like this in place if and when their marketing and public relations departments get swamped with phone calls during a crisis to avoid rejecting interview requests and leaving voicemails unanswered.

“If you can’t return calls, create another system in which you can interact with the media,” he said. “There should be a Twitter handle and a Facebook page just for communicating with the media, and those journalists can include bloggers. That way, brands can release statements to the group that made this a bigger deal than it should have been.”

Holding a virtual press conference — in which the brand responds to questions left on its Facebook fan page or directed to it via Twitter — is another way to immediately address a negative publicity situation for a brand, Powills said.

“The social voice matters the most in these situations, because so often the customer is the media outlet you want to reach,” he said.

Contact Mark Brandau at [email protected].
Follow him on Twitter: @Mark_from_NRN

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