Digital & Social Media

The Road to a PR Crisis Is Paved With Good Intentions

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By Allan Chernoff

McDonald’s was fried in the news media recently over what many would consider its most admirable initiative: the fast-food giant’s support of Ronald McDonald House Charities (RMHC).

Apparently, McDonald’s has been a stingy benefactor. At least that’s what Corporate Accountability International (CAI) would have us believe. CAI is a progressive organization with the stated mission to “safeguard public health, human rights and the environment from corporate abuse.”

In a report entitled “Clowning Around with Charity: How McDonald’s Exploits Philanthropy and Targets Children,” the watchdog group ripped into McDonald’s for contributing what it estimates to be only about 20 percent of the annual budget of RMHC. The nonprofit provides accommodations for families needing to take their severely ill children to faraway medical centers for treatment. McDonald’s reported $34 million in cash and in-kind donations in 2011 to the RMHC and other charities, a year when the company said it earned $5.5 billion in net income.

Some top-tier news outlets, such as USA Today, forbes.com and abcnews.com, gobbled up the report findings like they were a large order of fries. McDonald’s reacted indignantly, calling the report “shameful” and “misleading.” A spokesperson said the company hesitated to “even dignify it with a comment.” But in an age of must-have transparency, a decision not to comment would have indeed been a mistake.

For the moment, let’s pass on debating whether the criticism is fair. Let’s look instead at the lesson it provides for companies of all sizes. Simply put: Some good deeds will, in fact, not go unpunished.

With CSR now considered de rigueur for corporate image building, companies should resist the temptation to construct a good name on the cheap. In these days of information transparency, it’s not hard for journalists to determine a company’s true commitment to a cause. Nonprofits often list supporters, by rank, on their websites, and their IRS form 990 tax filings can easily be accessed online. Journalists can sniff out a bogus effort that smells more from self-aggrandizement than philanthropy.

Companies should promote only charitable efforts to which they’ve truly contributed serious time and money. In most cases, promotion should focus first on owned media, where the corporation has control over its own story and can speak directly to constituents who will actively seek information on the company. Shared social media is a good secondary channel to help direct traffic to owned media.

Earned media, however, demands particular caution. Efforts typically will be most fruitful on the local level, where journalists can highlight the immediate impact on their community. Local coverage can then provide support for top-tier national stories.

Of course, only take credit for what you actually do. When your customers or employees contribute to the cause, be sure to celebrate their role. And if you don’t plan to continue the effort after the cameras are turned off and stories written, then pass on press coverage — unless you’re in the mood to have to explain your short-term commitment later.

At the end of the day, effective charitable giving and CSR should be intertwined with corporate culture, not something tacked on. Otherwise, you run the risk of it feeling like a ploy for good PR. The key: an earnest desire to make a difference.

In the case of McDonald’s, the company’s commitment toward RMHC feels sincere and is certainly one it has sustained for almost 40 years. Could McDonald’s be more generous? Sure, even considering the multimillions the company has given over the years and the millions more — $50 million in 2012 — it helped raise from customers.

While the charity’s use of Ronald McDonald has been undoubtedly a PR boon for the brand, the mascot has been a big, if not bigger, benefit to RMHC, helping to give it immediate global recognition and allowing it to grow from one Ronald McDonald House in Philadelphia in 1974 to 333 in 35 nations today, according to the nonprofit’s 2013 fact sheet. There also are 194 Ronald McDonald Family Rooms and 50 mobile care units.

The bottom line: Spending millions on charitable causes and good works neither assures positive media coverage nor insulation from criticism. Self-appointed watchdogs are quick to find fault and willing to complain loudly enough to get a hearing from reporters seeking stories of conflict. So be careful when you raise your hand to take credit, it just might get chopped off.