McDonald's Crisis Tip: Don't Fight the Children's Hospital

Though Research Had Holes, Lashing Out Could Worsen Chain's Situation

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CHICAGO ( -- The study should have been easy enough to discredit: It was conducted with a statistically small sample by a group with an obvious agenda and came to the hardly surprising conclusion that kids are more interested in multicolored paper than plain paper.
Are nuggets better in a McDonald's box?
Are nuggets better in a McDonald's box?

But rather than attack the source of the damaging research -- which just happened to be a children's hospital -- McDonald's seemed to decide the best defense was no defense at all.

The release of findings last week from a study by the Stanford University School of Medicine and the Lucille Packard Children's Hospital was made for the media during a time when fast feeders are being whacked by critics for fueling childhood obesity.

Researchers presented 63 children between ages 3 and 5, all students in Head Start programs in Northern California, with servings of hamburgers and chicken nuggets from McDonald's. Some were wrapped in white paper, others in McDonald's packaging. The children overwhelmingly preferred the branded servings even though all of the food came from McDonald's.

Media lovin' it
News organizations lapped it up -- online, in print and TV, including a pundit debate on NBC's "Today." A Google search Aug. 9 on "McDonald's and kids study" yielded 1.7 million hits. Yet the response from the Golden Arches was cool at best.

"This is an important subject and McDonald's has been actively addressing it for quite some time," spokesman Walt Riker said in a statement. "The fact is, parents make the decisions for their children, and our research confirms that we've earned their trust as a responsible marketer based on decades of delivering the safest food, the highest-quality toys, and the kind of choice and variety today's families are looking for."

Shouldn't McDonald's, as Ad Age advises in this week's editorial, have come out swinging? After all, the study's holes were glaring. The children could have been drawn to colorful wrapping. And they were predisposed to McDonald's food: About one-third of the children ate at McDonald's more than once a week, and three-quarters had McDonald's toys at home.

Hold on ...
Not necessarily, said Eric Dezenhall, author of "Damage Control: Everything You Think You Know About Crisis Communications Is Wrong."

"Whenever something like this happens, it's always said the company under attack is mishandling things," he said. "Just because you're under attack doesn't mean you did something wrong."

Besides, he added, "you really can't attack a children's hospital." One good way to handle it, he said, would be to plant some experts or scientists on TV to debunk the study, rather than offer up McDonald's own executives.

With the study hitting only a few days before the Federal Trade Commission issued subpoenas to 44 major marketers -- McDonald's included -- to hand over details about their marketing to kids, maybe the fast feeder felt it had bigger fish fillets to fry.

Or, as some suggest, maybe it realized that by fighting back, the fast feeder would unwittingly aid the enemy. "If McDonald's were to join the debate, it would become a bigger story," said Sally Stewart, author of "Media Training 101."

Risk-communication consultant Peter Sandman believes McDonald's was better off admitting its responsibility to children rather than trying to poke holes in the research. The net effect, he said, is to "take the wind out of the sails of your critics by giving them some credit for the positive changes you've made."
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