Cindy Hoots: Transparency and social media at McDonald’s

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Today’s guest post comes from Cindy Hoots of Cone Communications, the company founded by Carol Cone that does excellent work around cause marketing and corporate responsibility. Cindy, whose clients include Johnson & Johnson and Green Mountain Coffee Roasters (but not McDonald’s), previously spent 10 years at Starbucks, working on stakeholder engagement, communications and social media. She also edited The Inspired Economist blog. You can find her on Twitter at @ethicalbiz.

When it comes to multinational corporations, we want to “see the man behind the curtain.” Better yet… we want to question him about his business practices. So what happens when we don’t get the opportunity to ask the burning questions? Well, we begin to spread rumors, create urban myths and make stuff up. McDonald’s Canada has decided to lift “the curtain” (at least a little) and directly answer customer questions through the brilliant use of social media.

Over the summer, the fast food giant launched an initiative called “Our Food. Your Questions” which allows customers to ask questions through Facebook and Twitter and then receive personalized responses from the McDonald’s Canada team. The team has promised to answer every question and has already confronted a number of hot button CSR issues including genetically modified organisms (GM0s), Fair Trade, and animal cruelty.

For example, Adam L. from Calgary asks, “What do you do with your used oil? Do you participate in bio diesel programs? If no, why not?” McDonald’s responds, “Hi Adam. Our used cooking oil is collected and the majority is recycled into biodiesel. The remainder is used in other applications. Thanks for your question.” Good to know.

And, of course, who could forget the disturbing photos and videos about the ammonia-injected “pink slime” used as fillers in our beef products. “Does Canada use ‘pink slime’?” asks Nikki L. from Blackfalds, AB. “Absolutely not, Nikki! Our hamburger patties are made with 100% pure Canadian beef, with no fillers or additives – except for a pinch of salt and pepper,” answers McDonald’s. What a relief.

Okay, so McDonald’s Canada is responding to customers’ questions and concerns online, but how is it any different than what other companies are doing? The team at McDonald’s Canada is raising the bar on stakeholder engagement through social media. They are responding to select questions with personalized videos. Some of which have become the hottest trending videos on YouTube over the summer.

In this video response–called Behind the Scenes at a McDonald’s Photo Shoot--McDonald’s Canada tackles the age old question posed by Isabel M. from Toronto “Why does your food look different in the advertising than what is in the store?” The video has been viewed almost 7 million times with 17,000 plus “likes”. It is a social media homerun.

One of the most well-known McDonald’s myths was made famous by the documentary film, Super Size Me directed by and starring Morgan Spurlock. In the film, Spurlock puts different McDonald’s foods in glass jars to see how they will decompose. After 10 weeks, the burgers were covered with mold but not the French Fries which did not decompose, and hence, the myth began – McDonald’s uses chemicals to preserve its food.

“How is it that a McDonald’s burger does not rot?” ponders Laura B. from Toronto. Providing credibility to its response, McDonald’s Canada hands it over to a third-party expert, Dr. Keith Warriner, Program Director at the University of Guelph’s Department of Food Science and Quality Assurance. A brilliant move!

Companies have had a love/hate relationship with social media. Some businesses have created brand loyalty success while others have experienced a reputational nightmare all at the hands of this ever-changing, ever-evolving new media platform.

Launching the “Our Food. Your Questions.” campaign was gutsy and risky considering the US McDonald’s social media #fail with the Twitter hashtag #McDStories earlier this year. The #McDStories campaign was hijacked by the Twitterverse which forced US McDonald’s to pull its social media campaign. So why does the McDonald’s Canada campaign work while its sister campaign in the US did not?

US McDonald’s lost control of its Twitter campaign and learned the hard way that one cannot manage a hashtag. While up north, McDonald’s Canada maintains control of the “Our Food. Your Questions.” site by vetting questions and disallowing video comments on YouTube. It’s smart to be transparent yet cautious.

However, US stakeholders interested in McDonald’s sustainability practices can visit Open for Discussion, a blog by Bob Langert, VP of Sustainability at US McDonald’s. He discusses the good, the bad and the ugly when it comes to sustainability issues in his industry. It’s definitely worth a read.

So has “Our Food. Your Questions.” created brand loyalty for McDonald’s Canada? Does it actually impact the CSR reputation of the company? Or is it just a futile exercise in stakeholder engagement? It would be interesting to see how McDonald’s Canada plans to measure the success of the campaign. But honestly, as long as the company engages the public in an interesting, interactive way while communicating its key sustainability messages, it’s a true accomplishment in CSR communications.

Oh, and to answer the question from Pie M. of Barrie, “Are there rat hairs in your patties?” According to McDonald’s Canada, “No, there are not rat hairs in our beef patties. Only 100% Pure Canadian beef.” Whew, and I was worried there for a moment.

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