Few companies face as many reputational challenges as McDonald’s. The fast food restaurant is criticized for the contribution some of its menu items make to the global obesity epidemic; for the environmental impact of everything from grazing cattle to packaging; for the supposedly low-paying, low-skill jobs it provides; and as a symbol of both American cultural imperialism and rampant consumerism.
And in few markets does McDonald’s face those challenges as acutely as in the U.K., where its reputation seems to have been permanently tarnished by the notorious McLibel lawsuit it brought against a handful of unemployed activists two decades ago, seen by its critics as an act of corporate bullying. Consumer activism in the U.K. is more virulent—and more eagerly amplified by the media—than in almost any other developed market and the company has seldom been far from the headlines.
As a result, few public relations professionals face as many challenges as Nick Hindle, the company’s senior public relations executive since 2002.
Hindle joined the company as head of corporate affairs (he was promoted to his current position as vice president of communications in January 2007) and is responsible for media relations, public affairs and internal communications as well as integrated marketing and communications programs involving McDonald’s food quality communication and sports sponsorship.
During Hindle’s time at McDonald’s the company has been placed under the microscope on a wide range of issues, often amplified by films such as SuperSizeMe and Fast Food Nation and direct NGO action such as Greenpeace’s campaign on soy. At the same time the company has undertaken significant changes in its menu, in the design of its restaurants and has embraced progressive human resources and environmental initiatives, all of which have helped McDonald’s sales return to strong growth in the U.K.
Two initiatives in particular stand out.
The first was the company’s response to criticism embodied by the best-selling Eric Schlosser book Fast Food Nation. U.K. chief executive Steve Easterbrook set the tone by appearing on Newsnight and becoming the first McDonald's executive to debate face-to-face with Schlosser. The company also set up a website, makeupyourownmind.co.uk, via which the company’s communications team “patiently answer questions from all-comers,” according to a profile in The Guardian, “from ‘what conditions do the chickens live in before slaughter’ to ‘do your staff spit in the burger if you order plain?’”
More recently, the company managed to turn criticism of McJobs into an opportunity to tell what it believes to be a truly positive story, about the opportunities it offers to young people and preparation its jobs provide for future employment. After the term McJob found its way into both Webster’s (“a low-paying job that requires little skill and provides little opportunity for advancement”) and the Oxford English Dictionary (“unstimulating”) the company launched an advertising campaign highlighting company's Investors in People status, flexible working hours for parents, competitive pay and promotion options and health benefits, and a PR campaign that sought signatures for a petition to change the dictionary definition.
Easterbrook’s contribution to those efforts should not be underestimated—it’s a tremendous boon to any public relations executive to have a chief executive who appreciates the value of corporate reputation and is prepared to get personally involved in its restoration, particularly in such a bold manner. But the corporate communications department has clearly played a vital role.
Says Easterbrook: “McDonald’s has faced some tough challenges in recent years. Nick has been a key member of my top team in the rebuilding of our reputation in the U.K. Clarity in communications strategy has allowed us to take controlled risks as we play big to deliver a fast turnaround. He has made a major contribution to improved trust ratings as we have delivered 13 successive quarters of growth.”
Both of the campaigns detailed above were awarded with EMEA region SABRE Awards, and over the course of Hindle’s tenure at McDonald’s the company has also been named PR Week’s Private Sector In-house Department of the Year and has received recognition for its work from PR Week, the Chartered Insatitute of Public Relations, the Association for Measurement & Evaluation of Communication and the British Association of Communicators in Business.
Hindle can now add to those honors one of our inaugural European SABRE Awards for Individual Excellence, to be presented at our annual awards dinner in Stockholm on May 21.
Prior to joining McDonald’s, Hindle spent 15 years in public relations consultancy, including three years as managing director of Phipps PR and time as a director of Porter Novelli. He is also a trustee of the Evelina Family Trust which provides home away from home accommodation for families with children receiving in hospital care at London’s Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospitals.