It’s been a week of media chaos for some well-known brands, Atlas Consultant Bethan Phillips talks us through McDonald’s ‘straw gate’ and EasyJet’s ‘backless seat’ and reflects on the crisis comms gem that was KFC’s FCK bucket!


Earlier this week global fast food chain McDonald's received a plethora of unwanted (but arguably well-deserved) headlines after The Sun leaked an internal memo revealing their new cardboard straws (brought in to replace the recyclable paper straws, that replaced their plastic ones) are non-recyclable. Journalists criticised the move as “green washing”,“a silly stunt”,“bad policy making” and the Former Climate Change Secretary Ed Davey questioned whether it was in fact just a “monumental cock up”. Either way, it’s been a bad week for McDonald’s street cred.

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Despite being ahead of its competitors when it comes to buying local produce (they only use British and Irish beef for their patties and potatoes for their chips - and have done for years) McDonalds seems to have leapt on the green bandwagon without considering the implications. Wouldn’t it have been impressive if instead of creating cardboard straws that can’t be recycled, McDonalds made their takeaway packaging compostable?

It is of course important to listen to your customers concerns (in this case that the old recyclable paper straws got too soft) but sometimes a short-term technical fix can have negative consequences on a brands reputation. It’s so important for the communications, CSR and technical teams to be aligned, ensuring mistakes like these don’t happen. I’ve always admired McDonalds campaigns and polices around literacy and welfare and I hope ‘straw gate’ is just a glitch on their pathway to more progressive environmental policies.


Next up finding them themselves on a sticky wicket with the media, is EasyJet and their “backless seat” which took social media by storm. For those that missed it, a passenger on board an EasyJet flight tweeted a photo of a customer sat on a backless seat, the EasyJet twitter account asked the passenger to remove the photo and Twitter went wild. EasyJet then confirmed in a separate tweet that once the plane was fully boarded the woman was moved to a different seat.

Transparency from brands could not be more important at the moment, so asking a customer to take down a photo or remove a tweet is a social media no no. It is of course understandable that brands need to defend themselves against fake news, but there is a time and a place for it and it’s safe to say this what not it. Sweeping something under the carpet is never a good tactic- brands need to be open and honest about mishaps like these and show what they are doing to fix the problem.



All these blunders got me thinking about the media mayhem of times gone by and the KFC FCK bucket in 2018 came to mind as an example of how to excellently handle a corporate and operational crisis with the media. Despite 750 KFC restaurants temporarily shutting (after a serious logistical problems with their new distributor, DHL) 19,000 staff members being affected, 321 media enquiries and 1,000 pieces of coverage - KFC eventually got its customers back on side and their media campaign won a Cannes Lions award.

Speaking at Cision’s CommsCon last year, Head of Brand Engagement at KFC UK and Ireland Jenny Packwood explained the key lesson KFC learnt was the importance of maintaining brand identity and style of voice. Instead of responding to the crisis with a corporate hat on, they positioned themselves as human and honest, admitting they’d screwed up.

Jenny shared how she broke the communications team into two; one team was focused on the creative ideas and the other on safety checking messaging and managing the huge inflow of media requests. Instead of letting social media dominate the dialogue around the crisis (as it did with EasyJet) KFC used social media as a channel for proactive communications, allowing them to take back control.

Back in the driving sit after testing their humorous and human messaging on social media, KFC and their agency partners launched a paid media campaign (print only) bravely apologising for their mistake- with the now infamous FCK bucket. Packwood said the FCK bucket “gave us a way of saying sorry in a bold and human way, and in a way that felt true to our brand.” Whilst each brand voice is different and I’m by no means suggesting McDonalds or EasyJet should create their own versions of the FCK bucket, there is something to be learnt here about brands (in the face of a media crisis) being more honest and human with customers.