150PR | One PR Expert Explains How Restaurant Chains Handle Viral Speculation
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28 May One PR Expert Explains How Restaurant Chains Handle Viral Speculation

If the restaurant industry had its version of Brian Wilson’s “Smile” or Guns N’ Roses’ “Chinese Democracy,” it would be the mythical rollout of all-day breakfast service at McDonald’s more than 14,000 locations in the United States — supposedly in the works for years and the subject of endless speculation and buzz.

In the case of the Golden Arches, or for most other restaurants that deal with long-standing rumors about their menu or operations policies, the advisable public-relations move is to “let it ride” as long as the speculation is not malicious or false, said Derek Farley, president of Charlotte, N.C.-based public relations firm DFPR.

“My advice is somewhat counterintuitive to marketing,” said Farley, whose restaurant clients have included Applebee’s, T.G.I. Friday’s, Champps and Fox & Hound. “The best way to handle things like this from a PR perspective is let it ride. If you’re having a winning streak or pitching a perfect game, the last thing you do is start talking about it.”

McDonald’s chief Thompson only addressed the possibility of all-day breakfast when he took questions from Twitter users who sent live queries at the end of his interview with Carl Quintanilla on CNBC’s “Squawk on the Street.” His response did not differ materially from what McDonald’s has said about 24-hour breakfast before, namely that the company is open to it but has no immediate plans.

“Yes, we could consider it,” Thompson said. “We have to focus on our existing menu, but we have looked at breakfast across the day. We have it in some markets around the world.”

He noted that McDonald’s has all-day breakfast in some foreign markets and has explored “innovative ways” to roll that out elsewhere, adding, “I think we’ll be seeing some of those things in the near future.”

Farley said it was unlikely McDonald’s would move soon on all-day breakfast but added that Thompson likely commented on the question as a kind of low-risk trial balloon.

“Sometimes the best market research comes from all the feedback you get from one tweet or blog post,” Farley said. “It’s hard to believe McDonald’s talks to CNBC unless there’s a clear plan of attack. They may have dropped the hint of the possibility [of 24-hour breakfast] to see what kind of reaction they get.”

Picking your battles

The Oak Brook, Ill.-based brand is hardly alone as the subject of viral speculation. This week, Taco Bell also fielded questions from several media outlets, including Nation’s Restaurant News, about a “waffle taco” being tested in at least one Southern California location that created a buzz on Twitter and Instagram.

Other restaurant brands often contend with long-running rumors, like Wendy’s nonexistent policy that its restaurant crews must give free food to people approaching the counter and saying, “I’m lost and have no money.” In addition, ABC News and USA Today both have recently published pieces on “secret menus” at chains like McDonald’s, Burger King, Starbucks Coffee, Taco Bell and Panera Bread, which inevitably reference In-N-Out Burger’s not-so-secret menu.

Companies should, of course, clear up false speculation, such as Wendy’s bogus free-food policy for lost people, either through public statements or social media, Farley said. But if rumors are not hurting a brand’s perception and remain non-events, the restaurant chain may not have to quell the conversation.

“If it’s good, embrace it and enjoy it, he said. “If it’s bad, jump in and clarify. But the best thing could be to just see where it goes.”

Farley noted that a company leaping too eagerly to make hay out of a story could come across as overly opportunistic. He cited a McDonald’s tweet this month about Cleveland customer Charles Ramsey, who was hailed as a hero in the rescue of three kidnapped girls in Cleveland. Ramsey said that he was eating McDonald’s food before he helped free the girls, which prompted thousands of Twitter users to encourage McDonald’s to honor Ramsey in some way.

But when McDonald’s tweeted, “We salute the courage of Ohio kidnap victims & respect their privacy. Way to go Charles Ramsey — we’ll be in touch,” Twitter users responded with both praise and condemnation.

Conversely, Farley praised Olive Garden’s handling of an online review last year in the Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald of a local Olive Garden opening by senior-citizen columnist Marilyn Hagerty. Although the review turned Hagerty into a viral sensation, Olive Garden remained largely silent about the matter but eventually hosted Hagerty and newscasters at the Grand Forks unit after her 15 minutes of fame mostly subsided.

“The second the response feels controlled or corporate, if anybody at the home office tries to take credit for the viral aspect of it, it’s over,” Farley said. “Everybody waited for the corporate response from Olive Garden, and the best thing they did was nothing. You never know when it comes or how long it will stay.”

Contact Mark Brandau at mark.brandau@penton.com.
Follow him on Twitter: @Mark_from_NRN