You don’t need me to tell you that making children cry on television is not a good look for any brand.
But that is exactly what one fast food chain did last week as its security officer was captured on camera escorting children from an office as they attempted to hand in a petition.
The resulting footage was broadcast during a prime-time slot and triggered a social media backlash.
The incident happened when the BBC’s War on Plastics programme – perhaps an unlikely source for a media training blog - focused on the promotional toys which are typically handed out by fast food chains.
It featured nine-year-old Ella McEwan and her sister Caitlin, seven, who had organised a petition about McDonald’s and Burger King giving away plastics toys with children’s meals – a petition which had attracted more than 166,000 signatures.
After only receiving an automated response from McDonald’s, the young campaigners and presenter Anita Rani, travelled to the company’s London headquarters to deliver the petition.
But their request to meet with the sustainability department was met by a security officer who escorted them from the building without even asking why they were there.
The girls were eventually allowed back into reception to hand in the petition, without the television cameras, but by then the damage had been done (you can watch the footage here for as long as the broadcaster makes it available).
This bungled response resulted in some great television footage and a bit of a kicking for McDonald’s reputation.
Have you no shame @McDonaldsUK? Having two little girls escorted from your head office by an aggressive security guard because they dared to speak out about your disgraceful use of plastic.— Lalsy Walsy (@couch2bbg) June 24, 2019
Will never step foot in a @McDonalds again
This little girl wanted to hand in a petition to McDonald’s HQ to complain about plastic usage - she & her pal were ignored & effectively escorted off the premises. Not a great look for the company #WarOnPlastics pic.twitter.com/7uOlTnFxxd— Toby Earle (@TobyonTV) June 24, 2019
But how could it have been avoided?
McDonald’s is far from the first brand to be caught out by the ambush or doorstep interview. These are often used in crisis media management situations but they are also a favourite of the consumer watchdog style programmes and documentaries.
These types of interviews typically catch organisations off-guard, as was the case here.
Whether the aim is really to get answers to questions, or gain footage of someone looking bad, is the subject of debate.
But all too often organisations fall into the trap of providing footage which does not paint them in a positive light.
One of the key ways to avoid this embarrassment is to ensure all staff have a level of awareness and understanding of the media.
If you think that sounds extravagant or unnecessary, it is worth considering how you feel your security team would respond if a television camera crew turned up unannounced. Would they know how to escalate the issue or would they try to cover the camera lens and hurriedly remove them from the building?
Additionally, receptionists, security and maintenance staff often wear branded clothing and are highly visible members of your team who could be approached by the media, particularly during a crisis media management incident where there is often a scramble to get the latest information and angles.
We are not recommending that you invest in media training for all your front of house staff – they are unlikely to need to learn the intense interview techniques that senior staff may experience.
But they do need to realise that escorting a camera crew out of a building, for example, could create damaging footage, or that ignoring a journalist will not make the problem go away. We have delivered this type of media training for a number of clients.
The other key lesson is this could have been avoided if McDonald’s had responded to the campaigning girls properly.
Burger King, which was not the subject of a doorstep interview, sent two replies. The first one let them know what was happening with their petition and the second revealed it was trailing the removal of toys and ‘the development of alternatives’ with a goal for a ‘more sustainable toy solution’ being in place by 2020.
McDonald’s subsequently issued an apology for that lack of response, but by that point the programme had been aired and the nation had watched two girls being left in tears.
Last night, we featured on ‘War on Plastics’, we'd like to apologise wholeheartedly to Ella & Caitlin. It shouldn’t have taken a TV show for us to respond properly. We've issued a personal apology to the girls & have invited them in to discuss their concerns with us.— McDonald's UK (@McDonaldsUK) June 25, 2019
McDonald's giving a lesson in absolute PR disaster. Refusing to acknowledge 2 brave girls who should be rewarded applauded. The only way McDonald's could have handled this any worse is by saying they were going to make kid's toys from ivory moving forward. #WarOnPlastic pic.twitter.com/NWXWWPXyFb— Alexanderson Recruitment Group (@AlexandersonRec) June 24, 2019
Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 30 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers.