Survival Summit

McDonald's PR chief on how to respond to negative news

By Published on .

Jano Cabrera speaking at the Ad Age Survival Summit in Chicago on May 2.
Jano Cabrera speaking at the Ad Age Survival Summit in Chicago on May 2. Credit: Ingrid Bonne Photography

Google "McDonald's" right now and what would you see?

"Guaranteed, you're going to find some horrible stories about things that have happened at the restaurants over the last 48 hours," said Jano Cabrera, the company's senior VP of U.S. communications, global media and PR. Indeed, this is one headline that surfaced: "McDonald's customer takes bat to drive-thru window after being denied biscuits and gravy."

For each negative story "we have to decide as a team do we respond to that, or do we not," Cabrera said Wednesday in an on-stage Q&A at the Ad Age Survival Summit. "If you're a big player in any industry … the expectations are higher. With that sometimes comes the pressure from executives to defend that brand no matter what's happening," Cabrera said. But when deciding to engage, it "comes down to the context."

Here, his tips on when to hold your fire, and when you should not:

Follow the social data

McDonald's pays most attention to what's happening on social media due to the speed at which news can spread. The comms team holds a meeting every morning to take stock, he said, and then ask themselves, "What does the data actually show us?"

Say something

"Analysis paralysis is definitely a thing when you work at a big brand," Cabrera said. But "sometimes you don't have enough information on how to respond." Still, if the issue is serious enough, "simply saying, 'We are looking into this,' is sometimes sufficient. It's silence often that kills big brands because it codifies in the minds of consumers a guilt that may or may not be there."


If the situation is bad enough, the first step is to simply say sorry, Cabrera said. McDonald's faced a potential crisis last year when its corporate Twitter account was hacked, sending out a tweet saying President Trump was a "disgusting excuse of a President."

McDonald's made sure it quickly apologized on its public channels, but also personally to the Trump administration, he said. That way, the restaurant avoided getting a snarky tweet back from Trump. For a mass-marketed brand that tries to stay above the political fray, he says, that could have been a disaster.

But brands of any size, he says, should "apologize before anything else can happen."

Sometimes, hold your fire

Of course, not everything requires a response. McDonald's showed restraint recently when Burger King, home of flame-grilled burgers, ran a print campaign that attempted to make hay over the fact that some McDonald's execs kept grills in their backyards. "It's a clever idea" Cabrera conceded. Internally, he said, there was pressure to respond, but data showed the BK effort wasn't gaining much traction. It went nowhere on social media he said, thinking at the time that "what will make this take off is if we respond."

So, despite the fact that the campaign got personal for some McD's execs, "you have to stand up to those internal pressures," he said. "It's a measure of the strength of [the comms team] internally at the company," he said.

Most Popular