It occurred to me recently that we are all just trying to have a nice life, build a good business, and make enough bucks to be comfortable. Most of us try to do good things for the communities we work in. But sometimes what we attempt to do doesn’t always work out because we make mistakes, or worse, it all goes out of control through no fault of our own.  

A good example of this is the recent concern over the cleanliness of play areas in restaurants. Now, McDonald’s Playlands were an innovation originally meant to provide some added entertainment for our kid customers, and let mom and dad have a moment of peace for their meal.

At McDonald’s, we began to see problems when the more legally oriented customers saw an opportunity to sue us when their precious kids decided to try to fly off the top of the slide. Kids didn’t have paratrooper training and didn’t know how to land. So a good thing, playlands, became a bad thing for the store’s public-relations department.  

Unfortunately, the relatively few playlands left have developed yet another problem: how to keep them sanitized. Now, my wife and I live with two horses and a dog, which almost never bring germs home from school. But our nephew does.

When he comes over and sniffles, we know what is going to happen to us. And so does the playland owner. There has to be a plan in each store to keep the equipment clean.

But there wasn’t in this case, and the McDonald’s PR team was forced to deal with another unforeseen problem.

In my experience, there were some good PR programs that developed problems no one could have foreseen. But there were also some programs that proved to be better than we expected.

In today's tough economic environment, you can use PR principles to further your business without spending a lot of money.

To help our PR, we developed a concept we called the Trust Bank. Everyone in the company made positive deposits of community goodwill, proactively building trust so that in times of trouble there was a sense that McDonald’s would do the right thing and could be trusted for quick action, openness, and honesty.

When we did our first glass promotion, the second day after the glasses were in the system, we discovered that the manufacturer had a minuscule amount of lead in the paint on the glass. There was no toxicity problem whatsoever; everything met legal standards. But McDonald’s acted quickly to recall all of the glasses because we didn’t want there to be any question of the safety of one of our promotions. That was a major deposit in the Trust Bank.  

What about the whole concept of nutrition and the advent of junk food? The quick-serve business is at the forefront of the problem of feeding meat, potatoes, bread, and milk to our customers. McDonald’s was one of the first to completely disclose all of our nutrition numbers. We hired an executive chef to develop food that was better for people nutritionally. We showed the world our training facility, Hamburger University, to demonstrate how our people learn the business. And recently we instituted a program called “Open Doors,” in which almost anyone can tour our suppliers’ plants and behind the counters of our stores to see how we handle the food. These PR moves are all based on the idea of transparency—we have no secrets except what goes into the Big Mac sauce.  

Back in 1984, a madman entered a McDonald’s in San Ysidro, California. Before anyone could react, he killed 22 crew and customers, and wounded 19 others. McDonald’s immediately reacted and saved the brand from a monstrous negative stigma. Corporate permanently closed the store and quietly, overnight, tore down the building, donating the property to the community.  

The president of McDonald’s went to the town to talk with the victims’ families and personally oversaw all of the company’s actions. The franchisee was given a new restaurant. The company’s decisive actions made it clear we were an innocent victim of the crime and had nothing to do with it. There was no negative stigma.  

Quick serves once had an ill-earned reputation for putting mom and pop restaurants out of business. Our PR task was to show that the people who run McDonald’s are local citizens, too, concerned with making the community better and being good neighbors. Our owners got involved in local schools, service clubs, and community causes. The Ronald McDonald House was an outgrowth of this concern. The result was that the owner became a trusted member of the community and a good citizen to boot. Everyone knew who Mr. McDonald was.

Another example of community citizenship that helps PR is McDonald’s policy to be first to help in emergencies. Whenever there is a disaster, McDonald’s uses its resources to distribute food to the workers who meet emergency needs. Or stores volunteer their crew and owners to help.  

There are fun instances of PR at work, too. For instance, when public relations has to be quick-witted enough to turn a negative to a positive right on the spot.

When we introduced Cherry Pie into the stores, an executive went on the Today show to do the introduction. The host decided to have some fun, so they had a pie made up with one cherry in it. When the host cut open the pie and showed the one cherry with a look of disbelief, our exec simply said, “Well, we didn’t call it cherries pie.”

The early days of the fast food business called for a lot of PR action, because we didn’t have money to spend on media advertising. The objective was to sell the business on the idea that we are here to serve customers a fair product. The concept was always positive, but negative instances would develop, as they often do, and we had to deal with them.

In today’s tough economic environment, you can use some of these same principles to further your business without spending a lot of money. And don’t forget, competition can only make you better. Check out what the guy next door is doing. There’s nothing wrong with a little good-natured borrowing.  

Happy Trails and Peace. Treat your Valentine extra well.

Story, McDonald's