5 ways McDonald’s boosted executive communications

With the rebirth of the fast-food giant’s business approach, McDonald’s also found a voice that was lighthearted, welcoming, unpretentious and playful.


Editor’s note: This story is taken from Ragan Communications’ distance-learning portal Ragan Training. The site contains hundreds of hours of case studies, video presentations and interactive courses.

Can internal communications play a role in a company’s rebirth?

At McDonald’s, the answer is yes, according to Liz Coffey, manager of executive communications and global internal communications for McDonald’s Corp.

In a new Ragan Training session, “Building a better executive communications presence,” you’ll learn how communications helped bolster the voice of its chief executive, Steve Easterbrook, as he helped the fast-food giant reclaim its marketplace mojo.

Several years ago, the hamburger colossus, which boasts 37,000 restaurants in 120 countries worldwide, was being hammered in the headlines, Coffey says. A typical one read, “McDonald’s has so many problems to solve, a muddled sense of mission.”

“These were some of the headlines we were seeing in the news every day,” Coffey says.

Even as Easterbrook focused on the business and traveled the globe visiting franchises, the company initiated the largest consumer research project in its history. It revealed that customers demanded more of the company, ranging from kiosk ordering to table service, but they still wanted the same friendly McDonald’s they remembered from years past.

“We’re unpretentious, and McDonald’s is a place where you can go to be yourself,” Coffey says.

Communicators (and Easterbrook) sought to capture a tone that was lighthearted, welcoming, unpretentious and playful. Here are some ways McDonald’s upped its game:

Hold informal town hall meetings.

McDonald’s regularly hosts the big-production town halls. Still, communicators asked, given that Easterbrook was skilled in such settings, how about hosting something more low-budget on the corporate campus?

In these events, employees stand around while the CEO stands on a low platform so everyone can see him. Nobody brings in chairs, because the chats don’t last long enough for people to need to sit down, Coffey says.

They start with a five- to 10-minute talk by Easterbrook, who then invites up a guest for a Q&A.

“The CEO is still leading the entire conversation, but it’s never just one person standing up there droning on and on,” Coffey says. “It’s more of a dialogue.”

Amplify executive social media voices internally.

Many companies are finding ways to use external social media platforms internally. McDonald’s decided to make use of Easterbrook’s Twitter presence.

“We also have pivoted to show that Steve is a real guy, and he goes to these restaurants, and he can really identify with people at the restaurants,” Coffey says.

Among the photographs he posts restaurant visits, showing the CEO as a regular guy. “He’s not only the CEO of this company, but he eats the food, enjoys the food, has fun being around the teams,” Coffey says.

Communications pushes the tweets internally. As a result, others stop Easterbrook and say, “Hey, I saw you were in St. Louis. That was so great that you met with this owner/operator,” Coffey says.

Bullet-point your emails.

There was a time when McDonald’s wrote most of its emails in long, “eyes-glaze-over paragraphs.” Nowadays, it breaks up copy in bullet points. A recent email concerning a new push for delivery of McDonald’s food broke the information into bullet points:

  • The email credited “those in Asia and the Middle East, who’ve shared their expertise from years in the delivery business.”
  • The message noted a global, cross-functional team that was expanding delivery at McDonald’s.
  • And it praised “the restaurant teams who’ve fine-tuned their operations to make way for this customer convenience.”

Coffey says communicators did so after making a resolution: “Let’s make things a little bit punchier. And going to our CEO’s personality and the fact that he likes to recognize other people, let’s do that as a part of these messages. When we unveil new initiatives, lets give a shout-out to the people who made this happen.”

Use other internal messengers.

Many CEOs are cautious about joking in an email, because emails tend to get forwarded and can be misinterpreted. That doesn’t mean corporate communications can’t take a lighter tone, however.

“Do all emails need to come from our CEO?” Coffey says. “Do all emails need to have a leadership voice?”

McDonald’s started sending emails from digital team that included some GIFs that offered the message: “We’re being progressive. We’re fun. We’re lighthearted.”

Make your infographics a narrative.

“The best infographics really tell a story,” says Coffey.

That means that, like a good story, they should have a beginning, a middle and an end. McDonald’s manages to do this with its quarterly business results.

Naturally, those with finance experience understand quarterly results, but there are huge numbers of team members who don’t understand the pages of dollar figures. McDonald’s revealed one set of quarterly results in three stages:

  • The beginning always implies, “This is a journey we’re on.” The company revealed key points from the latest report, among them “2 consecutive quarters of growth,” “+107 [million] additional guest counts over Q2 quarter last year,” and the news that that is the equivalent to the population of the Philippines.
  • Next, the company covers, “What progress are we making?”
  • The end discusses: Where are we going next? What do we see happening in third quarter? What initiatives are underway that will help carry the business forward?

“Leadership communications can tend to be a little robotic,” Coffey says. “If we’re truly going to live up to our brand personality and everything that McDonald’s stands for, we cannot be robotic anymore—because that’s not true to our brand.”

There’s lots more to this session. Subscribe to Ragan Training.

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