Following the failures of McDonald’s #McStories, #shamrocking and #MeetTheFarmer twitter campaigns, which have brought a storm of protest against the company, McDonald’s UK decided to try another approach. Instead of using an open social media platform in campaigns that seems to be more about advertising, it decided to build a new platform that will actually be more about engagement. The result is What Makes McDonald’s?, where stakeholders are invited to find the facts, share their views and ask McDonald’s a question or two.
The new website will feature a broad range of articles and videos that go behind the scenes of McDonald’s, “covering topics including food sourcing, the charities that McDonald’s supports, the truth about jobs at McDonald’s and what McDonald’s is doing to reduce its impact on the environment.” McDonald’s also plans to include in it contributions from a number of campaigning groups and organizations to highlight what it calls “some of McDonald’s more surprising connections – from The Marine Stewardship Council to animal welfare charity Compassion in World Farming.”
So, is McDonald’s becoming the new poster child of stakeholder engagement? Well, not so fast.
The website is only couple of weeks old, so it might be a bit too soon to evaluate it, but it already includes interesting indications of the way McDonald’s is planning to play this move. The first thing that is obvious is the level of responsiveness. The website seems so far to live up to its promise of “whatever your question, we’ll tell you the answer.” Basically, you’re invited to ask whatever you want and can look for answers already given in the Q&A section, where the information is organized by topics, such as what’s in your food or how are you reducing your environmental impact.
It was interesting to see that McDonald’s does not shy away from the difficult questions it doesn’t like to discuss. I looked for example for questions on the company’s impact on obesity. As we covered last week McDonald’s voted down a shareholder proposal to assess its impact on public health, particularly childhood obesity and other impacts on children’s health. My search brought up couple of related questions like ‘What is McDonald’s doing to try and combat the obesity problem in the UK?’, ‘What are you doing to help combat obesity in Britain?’, and even ‘Is your food bad for me?’
The answers are not very surprising and tend to emphasize the motive of personal choice (“ultimately it’s up to individuals to make the right food, drink, and activity choices for themselves every day.”) Yet, to be fair, the company does take some responsibility in terms of improving its menus and making them healthier (“the average children’s Happy Meal sold in 2011 contained 50% less salt, 21% less saturated fat, and 31% less sugar, compared with the average Happy Meal sold in 2000”). I guess this is McDonald’s way to admit it is part of the problem without really admitting it.
While the Q&A feature demonstrates responsiveness, at the same time it lacks the ability to become a platform for a real discussion because users can’t comment on McDonald’s answers. It might be temporary, but it might also be an evidence to the fact that McDonald’s is still struggling with the real meaning of engagement. According to the company, the site is supposed to enable stakeholders to meet the real McDonald’s. “Over the last few years, we’ve worked hard to open up our business, both on- and offline. However, there are still lots of myths out there about McDonald’s, and lots of things that people simply don’t know about us. What Makes McDonald’s? will enable us to have open, genuine dialogue with members of the public about every aspect of our business,” Alastair Macrow, Vice President, Marketing, McDonald’s UK explained.
And what about listening to stakeholders? After all, “open, consistent lines of communication are the only way a company can effectively collaborate with diverse stakeholders for the long-term and stay on top of issues that may improve or inhibit its business,” as Jonathan Yohannan, Senior VP of Cone says. Well, Macrow says that “we’re confident that introducing a new direct channel for people to tell us what they think and ask us questions will bring us closer to our customers – a key aim of our overarching business strategy.” As you can see, it’s not clear if McDonald’s will also listen to stakeholders, or just make sure that they’ll have all the correct information they need about the company.
There’s no doubt that the new website is far better than anything McDonald’s tried so far in terms of stakeholder engagement. It certainly reflects a more genuine, transparent and open-minded approach. Yet, we still need to see if it will become a platform for an open, two-way, ongoing dialogue, or stays the McDonald’s limited version of Quora.
Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry in the digital age. He is an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Department of Business Administration, CUNY and the New School, teaching courses in green business and new product development.