In a text message to Lightfoot, Kempczinski wrote: “With both, the parents failed those kids which I know is something you can’t say.”
Kempczinski’s texts were made public through a Freedom of Information Act request filed by Vancouver-based Michael Kessler and Lucy Parsons Labs. WBEZ first reported the news.
Workers at local McDonald’s restaurants, as well as local activists, protested Wednesday at McDonald’s headquarters in Chicago. McDonald’s workers told Chicago's WBEZ they found Kempczinski’s comments racist and classist.
In a statement to McDonald’s employees on Tuesday, Kempczinski wrote: “When I wrote this, I was thinking through my lens as a parent and reacted viscerally. But I have not walked in the shoes of Adam’s or Jaslyn’s family and so many others who are facing a very different reality,” he said. “Not taking the time to think about this from their viewpoint was wrong, and lacked the empathy and compassion I feel for these families. This is a lesson that I will carry with me.
“Quite simply, it is on all of us to do better for the children of our communities. I am committed to working with civic leaders and elected officials to understand what that means for McDonald’s, and I will be asking all of you to join me in this pursuit,” Kempczinski continued.
McDonald’s did not respond to a request for comment from Crain's Chicago Business.
Kempczinski’s comments about Adams and Toledo come at a time of prevalent calls for racial justice and understanding. There is also more criticism of language and behavior that’s considered classist in light of the economic plight of so many due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Additionally, labor movements across many industries have demonstrated the power workers are willing to flex, particularly in the food industry, when they are unhappy with working conditions or management, which could be a real issue for McDonald’s if enough workers voice concerns and make demands in response to Kempczinski’s comments.
When other companies find themselves in hot water, devising a crisis management plan for how to apologize and move on is usually the first order of business.
“It is such a misstep for such an iconic American company brand that is so synonymous with family,” said Noreen Heron, president at Chicago-based public relations firm Heron Agency, of the McDonald’s controversy. Heron has worked with companies like Smirnoff and Paper Source and even crafted a crisis management plan for Massage Envy when the company was sued by nearly 200 clients who claimed they were sexually assaulted by employees.
Heron said it’s possible that Kempczinski will be forced to step down unless McDonald’s responds to the outrage quickly and authentically. CrossFit founder and CEO Greg Glassman stepped down from the top role last year after receiving backlash for a tweet that made light of the COVID-19 pandemic and George Floyd’s murder.
“(Kempczinski) first and foremost needs to show more compassion and contrition,” Heron says. “The major shareholders, and in this case it’s the employees, have to believe that there is change.”
Heron recommends Kempczinski sit down with the families of Adams and Toledo, apologize for his comments and take part in diversity and sensitivity training, approaches which could help ease tension between the company, workers and the public. Establishing scholarships in the names of Adams and Toledo could also show McDonald’s dedication to rectifying the issue, Heron said.
“I think the real challenge for McDonald’s right now is that we are living in cancel culture times and people want to believe that when a situation like this happens, that it is a transformative moment,” Heron said.
McDonald’s is likely keeping a close eye on whether the controversy will deter customers and have an effect on its bottom line. The company reported $19.2 billion in 2020 revenue.
“If people get organized, they can have great impact on anyone’s bottom line. I don’t think anyone is immune,” said Jason Sherman, the founder and president of Chicago-based Sherman Communications and Marketing. “These things can build a lot of momentum. That’s why I think McDonald’s is not going to be smart if it sits back. They need to be really assertive and proactive and do the right thing.”
Katherine Davis is a reporter for Crain's Chicago Business