McDonald’s Corp. and President Barack Obama haven’t exactly been chummy of late, even if they do both hail from the Chicago area.
So it was a bit of a surprise when McDonald’s hired former White House press secretary and Obama advisor Robert Gibbs as its chief communications officer.
After all, Gibbs “seems to align more closely with McDonald’s critics than supporters,” according to Forbes. Plus, Gibbs has no experience in the restaurant industry.
But McDonald’s is no stranger to politics, and the company is currently facing stiff political headwinds.
McDonald’s is defending its very business model. The National Labor Relations Board has classified McDonald’s as a “joint employer” of its franchisees’ workers. If successful, that move alone could dramatically change McDonald’s relationship with its operators.
According to some, the ruling could severely damage franchising, the foundation on which McDonald’s built itself into the world’s largest restaurant company and one of the world’s most recognizable brands.
McDonald’s is also fighting a major push by union advocates to allow its workers to unionize and raise their wages to $15 an hour. Labor activists have been protesting around the country, and last month thousands of them gathered outside the company’s headquarters during its annual shareholder meeting.
Activists have also targeted the franchise business model, asking federal regulators to investigate franchising and its treatment of franchisees.
Indeed, the New York Post suggested that McDonald’s hired Gibbs at least in part to combat an expected franchise bill in Congress.
The bill, according to the Post, would make it more difficult for franchisors to terminate franchisees and invest more in their units.
Other elements are also in play. More than a few reporters noted that First Lady Michelle Obama has been an advocate of healthy eating initiatives. And for all of its efforts to improve the nutritional quality of its food, McDonald’s remains a lightning rod for healthful eating advocates.
McDonald’s does its share of lobbying. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, it spent $2.1 million on lobbying last year, and contributed $1.1 million to campaign for both Democrats and Republicans.
The company is working to improve its reputation as it works to sell more burgers. McDonald’s sales have been weak in the U.S., its home market, for the past two years. Gibbs’ was hired at the same time as Silvia Lagnado, for executive vice president and global chief marketing officer, who created Dove’s successful “Campaign for Real Beauty.”
In Gibbs, the company will get a veteran communications professional. Gibbs was Obama’s spokesman from 2009 through 2011. He also worked on Obama’s re-election campaign in 2012.
McDonald’s is hardly the first company to tap a former political figure to work within its ranks, nor is Gibbs the first Obama administration official to take a corporate job. Gibbs’ replacement as press secretary, Jay Carney, went to work at Amazon earlier this year.