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Surviving Politics with PR: Lessons from McDonald’s, Trump & Uber’s Twitter Hacks and Flubs

Lori Ruggiero By Lori Ruggiero, Senior Vice President, North 6th Agency

Any hack of a major corporation’s Twitter account will mean it’s time to call in the crisis communication team. But if you are as unlucky as McDonald’s, and that hacker sends a politically charged post attacking Donald Trump into the Twittersphere for all to see, then buckle up. It’s going to be a bumpy ride—though not necessarily a bad one.

The now infamous, and arguably infantile, tweet remained pinned for barely 30 minutes before McDonald’s acknowledged they had been hacked, deleting the rogue posting. Still, it didn’t take long before #boycottmcdonalds began trending. However, in an article for the Chicago Tribune, BrandWatch noted that McDonald’s twitter mentions then spiked 150 percent, two-thirds of which were positive. If you google McDonalds and twitter together, the number of news articles covering this is endless. The fast food giant’s stock price is also up since the alleged hack.

So, is all publicity good publicity? Not always. But, when political controversy is handled correctly it can be.

Stay Neutral

President Trump’s election last fall in many ways drew a deeper line in the sand, further separating the concept of “us vs. them.” In the days after Trump edged out Hillary Clinton, several media outlets reported on the unfriending frenzy taking place on social media, solidifying this separation of society. Any indication that someone is taking sides will almost immediately alienate that person with half of the American population.

Some of Uber’s recent struggles are, in part, an example of the repercussions of playing politics or even the impression of playing politics. With several bigger brand issues percolating, the company posted a tweet that was perceived by many to demonstrate a lack of sensitivity to the political hot potato of the so-called, Muslim ban. For many Trump and capitalism opponents, #DeleteUber became a cause celebre and a reported 500,000 people did delete the app.

When McDonalds posted its response to what happened, they wisely chose to not play politics. The company acknowledged the issue, apologized, an announced the issue was rectified. Their Twitter statement read:

“Based on our investigation, we have determined that our Twitter account was hacked by an external source. We took swift action to secure it, and we apologize this tweet was sent through our corporate McDonald’s account.”

Notice this: they apologized for the hack, not to the president. McDonald’s took responsibility for what happened, but offered no apology to Trump himself.

This strategic play prevented the chance for backlash. Saying sorry to the president or even offering a show of respect to the office, could have been perceived as taking political sides. By not addressing what the tweet said and focusing on just the hack, they avoided a potential pitfall.

Stay Involved

While no one wants to be embroiled in political controversies, their ability to draw media attention cannot be denied. Politics and the new administrations are dominating headlines. For brands looking for earned media in national publications, it may hard to find daylight. Smart companies and executives insert themselves into the news of the day. Hot topics are just that.

This is the time for expertise and thought leadership. Carefully crafted messages that offer innocuous, high-level, non-partisan insights should be the goal. There is no need to shy away from political topics and waste the opportunity of wide-spread viewability, so long as the approach is not haphazard.

Ideally, the media consumers would never know the thought leader’s political leanings. They would just see them as experts on a related or ancillary topic that they are interested in.  It’s a great way to build one’s profile.

Timing is everything

For as much coverage as the McDonald’s hack and Twitter fallout garnered, it did happen during a very busy news cycle—healthcare reform, White House connections to Russia, even March Madness (looking at you Villanova) fed the media beast all weekend following the temperamental tweet. If a company’s “crisis” is lucky enough to be sandwiched in on a busy news day, then crisis 101 calls for a quick apology and a promise to fix the problem. McDonald’s checked both those boxes.

Although it’s nearly impossible to assume motives with the current president, the busy news cycle could have also played into McDonald’s favor in that, Mr. Trump may have been too preoccupied to respond. No matter, it was a win for the fast food chain. Recent history shows Trump’s comments, on twitter or otherwise, can escalate even the most mundane situations. Had he responded, it would have certainly required additional measures on McDonald’s part. Any PR strategy worth anything will carefully calculate timing and placement in the perpetual news wheel.

The best offense is a good defense

At the end of the day, McDonald’s could have avoided much of this with a better cybersecurity posture. The hackers are getting smarter and more determined, so it is no easy task. However, it is the new reality. A week later several news organizations also had their twitter hacked, this time with seemingly pro Trump messages. The lesson is clear—protect your house. Better to not be in a sticky situation to begin with.

Even once cyber precautions are in place, companies large and small need to treat social media like any public facing document or company spokesperson. Hiring someone inexperienced or minimally-experienced to handle these platforms or not putting too much thought into what gets posted is reckless and asking for trouble. That trouble can be magnified if it involves politics.

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