It's a true David and Goliath story -- two unemployed vegetarian/environmentalists are being sued by McDonald's Corp. in the U.K. for distributing leaflets accusing the fast-food chain of selling unhealthy food, poisoning the minds of children with false advertising, abusing employees, ruining the rainforest, and generally wrecking the planet.
The trial has become the longest libel case in the U.K. and a PR nightmare for the multinational company which is normally associated with spokescharacter Ronald McDonald and "happy meals."
Did the giant burger chain shoot inself in the foot by the not ignoring the criticism.
Granted, libel laws in the U.K. favor the plaintiff. Thus MaDonald's counted on the fact that defendants David Morris and Helen Steel wouldn't be able to prove their allegations are true.
In the U.S., a company suing must show that what was printed is false, which is why similar criticis of the chain here either ignored or dealt with -- but has not ended up in court.
But in a PR attempt to preempt the bad publicity of the court case, McDonald's issued its own leaflet, "Why McDonald's is Going to Court," especially calling two environmentalists liars.
The leaflet caused the " McLibel 2" to countersue. Now both sides have to defend their claims.
Media and PR pros here and abroad agree that the embarrassing court testimony -- for example, the fact that McDonald's had been forced in the U.S. to stop using an ad campaign claiming its food is nutritious -- and tabloidish media coverage of the trial are possibly more damaging than the allegations themselves.
"This is a PR disaster," says Peter Muccini, a former Associated Press reported who also worked in PR for seven years at Carl Byoir & Associates in London. "McDonald's says it went to coaurt to clear its name, but nobody gives a damn what two beatniks say. McDonald's shoudl have ignored them.
"Everybody's laughing at McDonald's foar taking it too seriously. Perhaps these people have touched on a tender nerve.
"The real problem may be that the product is considered shoddy."
Long-time U.S. PR counselor John F. Budd Jr., Chairman of The Omega Group in New York, agrees. "The best method is to ignore it. If you react every time to every adversary group you'd spend all your days in court."
Budd, like others, notes that the company could win in court and lose in public opinion. "The legal opinion has prevailed over the PR opinion.
"More lawyers are taking the initiative in public disputes and lawayers do not concern themselves with perception."
Besides, Budd points out that the company does not seem to have suffered financially from all the criticism.
Indeed, McDonald's outlets in the U.K. have grown from 200 to 600 in the last decade, according to Mike Love, who heads up the PR department at McDonald's U.K. But Love said that it's hard to quantify the damage the leaflets have caused over the last 10 years. "The allegations have been repeated back to us by schools and with Morris and Steel, but the company would not concede to the duo's demands: an apology and a promise not to sue critics over similar charges.
Love said the lawsuit precludes any proactive PR by McDonald's but the company tries to correct any inaccurate media coverage.
Outside of the U.K., however, the corporation's policy seems to be beyond "no comment."
Asked about the McLibel coordinators to publicize the case in the U.S., through literature dissemination, demonstrations and keeping McLibel alive on the Internet, Ebling said he was not aware of any protests in the U.S.
Members of the McLibel group even staged an anti-birthday party on McDonald's 40th anniversary on April 15 at the first store in Des Plaines, Ill., with a cake-smashing ceremony led by Morris and Steel, who flew in from London for the affair.
McLibel protesters also appeared in front of "Rock and Roll McDonald's" in Chicago demanding that life-size statutes of the Beatles be removed.
"Paul McCartney is a big supporter of the McLibel campaign," says Mike Durschmid, McLibel coordinator in Chicago. "And before he died, John Lennon made his own bread. He wouldn't have touched McDonald's food."
Aside from The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, the U.S. media have paid little attention to the McLibel efforts either here or abroad. Durschmid thinks it's delf-censorship on the part of Chicago-based media.
"This is McDonald's town, and McDonald's is one of the biggest advisertisers. You see the golden arches on TV two or three times a night. The media know where it's bread is buttered," he said. "And McDonald's is laying low hoping it will go away."
Containing the McLibel matter as a "U.K. problem" seems to be not just a U.S. PR strategy, but a worldwide one. Brian Lipsett, McLibel coordinator out of Pennsylvania, points to a confidential internal McDonald's memo out of Australia.
The memo, which was sent to Love, outlines the "damage control" strategy the head of McDonald's Australia, Peter Ritchie, should adopt for an interview with a news program.
It suggested that Ritchie decline the interview on the grounds that McLibel is a U.K. matter.
"This will not be a positive story for McDonald's Austrialia, but buy being prepared we hopefully can deal effectively with each situation as it arises and minimize any further negative publicity," it said.
The memo also outlined a strategy for responding to follow-up media coverage of the "60 Minutes" segment.
It suggested which reporters to talk to and whom to avoid.
Foar example, it said not to talk to "any ABC radio of TV station in Australia because they have given significant coverage to the case in a positive perspective."
The Australian "Current Affairs" type show aired the McLibel segment tin May. "Iat made McDonald's look bad," said Dan Mills, a McLibel coordinator based in London. "It showed the cake-smashing party in Chicago and the confidential memo."
Lipsett thinks McDonald's attempt to play down the controversy as a "U.K. problem" is futile.
"A lot of people know about this case all over the world. This is a case of how not to proceed in PR. McDonald's assumed that Helen and Dave would back down, that they'd make mincemeat aout of them. Now they're in a position to defend their business practice."
No win situation
Many agree that the company has put itself in a non-win situation. If it conceded to McLibel 2's demands, McDonald's would look foolish. But by persisting in the somewhat silly court case -- fat content of french fries under fire and the like -- its reputation has been tarnished anyway. With the counterclaim, says Mills, "They're stuck."
The case is expected to continue through next summer -- and handling the PR of a win or loss will be another big job for Love. "He's a good guy. We feel sorry for him," said Muccini.
If you were Mike Love, what would you do?
"Looking with hindsight," says Mills," McDonald's should have withdrawn from the case, but they thought they would get bad publicity from backing down."
"If McDonald's wins they should issue a gracious statement," said Budd.
Losing will be expensive, both financially and image-wise. Losing the case will give credence to the allegations and "elevate the anarchists to stars," he said.