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When the medium has a mind of its own

3 min read


As a journalist who covered advertising from time to time and later made some forays into public relations, I know firsthand how long it can take to get everyone on the corporate ladder to sign off on a single press release, a model that doesn’t seem to lend itself at all well to social media. For one thing, if the legal department had to sign off on every tweet, no company would ever be able to keep it to 140 characters, much less get the message out while anyone still cared.

Companies need to rethink the way they go about getting their message out in a social and digital age. Clearly, social media is an increasingly important tool; chains are investing significantly and reaping the rewards in terms of increased sales, traffic and brand loyalty, as Monical’s Pizza’s Lisa Chidichimo told us last fall.

However, the nature of the medium virtually guarantees that the conversation is often beyond the company’s control and, as restaurant companies including McDonald’s have discovered, the best-intentioned social media campaigns can quickly take on a life of their own, flipping the original message and painting the company in a negative light. In January, McDonald’s launched a Twitter campaign with the sponsored hashtag #McDStories, designed to encourage patrons to share their warm memories of the chain. The company pulled the campaign after two hours, but by the end of the day, the feed was still full of negative comments from detractors, as Forbes and other media outlets reported.

A more recent McDonald’s effort, a viral video that takes people behind the scenes of a commercial shoot, shared the role of the food stylist in making the burger in the ad look so much better than the one in the bag, Advertising Age reported this week.

If restaurant companies have absolutely no control over what consumers say about them on Twitter, Facebook, blogs and other social sites, they’ve also got to worry about what their own people are saying and how they’re presenting the brand. Recently, Applebee’s explained that the “Life is Better Shared” digital campaign launched by Lexington, Ky., franchisee Thomas & King wasn’t a corporate-approved campaign and it doesn’t align with systemwide branding goals, as Nation’s Restaurant News reported. “[W]e are currently working with them to revise the work to reflect our brand standards and voice,” a spokeswoman said.

What surprises me about stories like the McDonald’s Twitter campaign gone awry and Applebee’s franchisees going viral on their own isn’t that they happen. It’s that they don’t happen more often — like every single day.

In a SmartBlog interview last month, food industry consultant Michael Sansolo put it succinctly: “One of the things we’re constantly teaching ourselves is that the kind of control a CEO used to be able to assert, that’s changing because everyone is sharing everything. You really can’t say, ‘This is all you’re allowed to talk about.’ ”

How do you control your restaurant’s messaging when the medium is out of your control? Tell us about it in the comments.