Chris Tang, our Asia Pacific managing director based in Beijing, has years of experience in advising clients during times of crisis.
The crisis a few months ago involving McDonald’s caught her attention.
Here, she shares a mini case study on the episode and what McDonald’s did right to avoid a long-term disaster.
By Chris Tang
The Hoffman Agency China
McDonald’s is one of those iconic global brands.
Whether the outlet is in Munich, Chicago or Beijing, everyone immediately recognizes the golden arches.
Unfortunately, CCTV, China’s state-owned national TV, wasn’t “lovin’ it.”
On March 15, the same day as World Consumer Rights Day, CCTV ran a one-minute-and-45-second undercover report exposing McDonald’s for a range of unacceptable practices.
Specifically, the McDonald’s outlet located in Beijing’s Sanlitun area was found to have sold chicken fillets, cheese burgers and pies past their expiration dates. More damning, the TV exposé reported that the restaurant workers would still use beef patties that had fallen on the dirty kitchen floor in the final burger product sold to the public.
Here’s the McDonald’s video of the CCTV posted on Youku.
If you skip to the one minute and six second point on the video, you’ll see beef patties on the floor.
The CCTV report spread quickly across 8,400 different Weibo accounts representing a reach of over 10 million consumers which in turn escalated into a PR disaster in the social media space in China.
Within two hours after the CCTV exposé, McDonald’s China issued an apology on their official Sina Weibo clearly defining the scope of the issue. They smartly singled out this one outlet as an independent case to prevent other McDonald’s restaurants in China from being pulled into the mess. They also reiterated their commitment to the China market, shared actions to resolve the problem and “joined hands” with government authorities related to monitoring their services and hygiene standards in the future.
The message was re-posted by nearly 20,000 times.
Within 24 hours, McDonald’s inspected the branch in question and ultimately shut it down, an action covered by media around the world:
In retrospect, what did McDonald’s do right?
I think the effectiveness of their crisis comes down to four components:
- Responded promptly to the crisis
- Used Sina Weibo to reach a mass audience of stakeholders
- Applied right language and tone to communications
- Issued a public apology
The transparency and swiftness of McDonald’s responses reinforced its image as a responsible company, which started the process of regaining the trust of Chinese consumers.
In today’s world where a single person can trigger an avalanche of negative communications, companies should have a preparedness plan in place that addresses the digital side of a potential crisis.
It’s been my experience that the key factors in digital crisis management include securing the CEO’s buy-in on the importance of social media, setting up a listening program and identifying key influencers in the business for ongoing relationship-building (don’t wait for the crisis to hit).
Before closing, I’d like to touch on Sina Weibo.
While the social network has similar functionality to Twitter, it’s important for Western companies to understand that the platform provides a form of “freedom of speech” for the Chinese people. As a result, it’s evolved into an outlet for people to express views that otherwise couldn’t be shared in a public forum. That’s where the platform’s power comes from and why issues spread so quickly on it.
I think it’s fair to say that Sina Weibo often plays a civil journalist role, breaking news that leads to widespread public attention. Despite government’s censorship that cracks down on sensitive topics, word is quickly passed among friends and followers across Weibo.