Haters gonna hate: Idealog talks to McDonald's social media expert, Simon Kenny

What’s it like managing the social media of a loved and loathed corporate juggernaut/fast food empire, like McDonalds? What’s it like trying to bring transparency to a brand that people love, but equally love to hate? And what do you do when your boss is a clown?

To get an answer to those questions you’ll have to ask Simon Kenny. He’s been head of communications at McDonald’s NZ for the last five years and leads the company’s ‘Journey together for good’ brand trust programme.

Kenny is speaking at the upcoming event ‘The Insight Story - NZ's Communications, Corporate Affairs and Media Relations Conference’ (scroll to the bottom to win tickets) so we got Kenny on the phone to talk to him about the changing media landscape for media, comms and social media, how he deals with the haters day-to-day, and to see if he actually does ‘make it click’.

Idealog: What are you going to be talking about at the conference? 

The title of it is ‘Changing Perceptions One Conversation at a Time’, and for a brand like ours, operating at scale these days you really have to have a conversation with individuals to convince them to change their perceptions. 

You’ve seen social media take off. With its rise what have you seen change? And how has that affected big multi-nationals like McDonalds? 

Our Facebook page had only been launched about six months before I started. Back then it was very straightforward. We’d do a couple of posts a week and then we’d answer comments on our wall, which were largely complaints. People tend to use it like that. I guess the sophistication with how the brand interacted back then was we were quite formal and very corporate in our language and tone and we’ve learnt that people appreciated us being a lot more conversational and honest and open. So we try and speak in a much more personable manner than we used to.

For obvious reasons we have a reputation as a big US multinational and people probably think that a lot of the time they’re dealing with someone in the US, so it’s important to make sure that people understand they’re taking to New Zealanders and that we do care about what they’ve got to say. It used to be a lot more about just pushing messages out, now it’s a lot more about going ‘Hey – we do listen’.

Free-range eggs is a good example. We’ve seen over time a kind of sentiment and a real appetite from people for us to move to free-range eggs, so that was a significant move in New Zealand – and it comes at a cost – but it’s something that was a direct result of those conversations on social media, whether that’s just individuals with an opinion or key opinion leaders, stakeholders or activists, social media is the channel that they come to. 

And what are those channels? 

We’ve got multiple channels now. We’re on Facebook, we’re on Twitter, we’re on Instagram, we’ve just moved into Snapchat, so having to be in those spaces where people are talking and the conversations are happening, rather than just waiting for peopel to come to us. We're reaching out into those areas. 

So how many staff do you dedicated to social media? 

There’s me and one other person in my team and we work with a social media agency. We have an ‘always on’ moderation programme so our agency helps us with that in terms of fielding questions and responding to people. Then, in terms of the proactive content stuff, again the agency will work on a bit of a programme of the right stuff for the right channel. 

So do you have a different formalised style-guide for each channel? 

Yeah we do. We have a tone of voice and type of content that we use in those channels, so how we talk and the content that goes on our Facebook page is very different than the content that goes on our Snapchat. In the early days we were probably a bit guilty of taking a bit of content from an above the line campaign, or images out of our restaurants, and using that, but we’ve discovered that the best thing to do in social media is to show real food and real products, rather than use images made by a food stylist. 

And why do you think that is? 

It’s just a part of trying to be more open and transparent and real about our food.

So this focus on transparency is part of a global strategy, but are you deciding the nuances of how that plays out here? 

We’ve had transparency programmes in New Zealand going back probably more than a decade – it probably goes right back to the ‘Supersize Me’ days of the early 2000’s when the business was in quite a defensive, reactive place. Ii the mid-2000s they had a programme called ‘Take a Closer Look’, which was a traditional above-the-line campaign run by DDB that was all about local sourcing and quality ingredients and those kinds of things.

There are a lot of commonly held perceptions and a lot of myths our food – that it’s heavily processed, it’s full of chemicals, it’s low quality ingredients, it comes from overseas, why doesn’t it go mouldy? – all those types of things. So we were trying to bring a lot of transparency to the campaign and that’s just continued over time, into social media and programmes like ‘Our Food. Your questions’ where you go ‘just ask us anything and we’ll open the books’. 

Where did that campaign come from? Was it generated in New Zealand?

That actually came out of Canada. For the developed McDonalds markets such as the US, Australia, the UK, Canada, France, they have a lot of similar challenges around perception. The Canadians had this interesting approach, a stand-alone website saying ‘ask us anything and we’ll give you the truth’. They did some quite interesting video content that resonated with people, so we lifted that, stole it shamelessly, and rolled it out here. 

So that’s an ongoing project that’s always live?  

Yes. It was a lot more intensive when it launched of course, but we still get a good amount of questions. So many questions have already been asked and answered of course – about 3000 – so there’s a good amount of content on the site that you can just go in and search, or that we can just reference people back to and say ‘good question, someone else has asked that, here’s the answer’.

Currently, we’re creating a new piece of video content to accompany the launch of our move to 100% free range eggs, showing where the eggs come from, etcetera. Even with saying you’re going to go to free-range eggs, cynical people still go ‘oh yes, and what does that really mean?, so we’ll take them to the farm and show them where the eggs come from and say ‘look, this is it, guys’. 

How do you manage the haters on Twitter and Facebook? What goes wrong from time to time? 

When people come onto Facebook and Twitter and challenge us on things in our range or on our practices, we can go ‘hey look, here’s the answer’, or ‘come over here and we can continue the conversation’. I think one of the things we could have done better with the ‘Our food. Your questions’ campaign was that there wasn’t any sort of on-going conversation with the person who’d asked the question. So if they ask a question, we respond and that’s where it ends. Ideally, I'd like to see is people being able to say ‘okay, that’s all good’, or ‘that’s not what I meant’ or ‘I’ve got another question now’, and looking at how we can continue that dialogue. 

How do you stop your feed from becoming overwhelmed with negative stuff? Can you?

We’re pretty realistic about the role of our Facebook page and our feed. We’ve got, I think, the second or third biggest brand page in New Zealand. We see between 1.3 and 1.5 million people a week so, even if we get it wrong point-one percent of the time, that’s still a lot of people who are happy with their experience.

We used to say ‘ring us up on an 0800 number’ or ‘go to our website and fill in a form’, but that’s not how people work these days. They find it more convenient to go on our Facebook page and complain, so we go 'You know what? Our wall is going to be a place where people do complain, so the best we can do is try and resolve their issues. 

You seem quite philosophical about the whole thing. What do you think the lesson is that people can take away from the way you guys are doing this so successfully? 

The people who fall over usually are the ones who try and be a bit tricky or use a social channel in the wrong kind of way. We’ve had content that’s flopped and we’ve had content that’s gone really well, and you just have to learn from it and not make the same mistake twice. 

You have to go in eyes wide open. We may want to use a social channel one way, but people may want to use it in a different way, and you just have to respond accordingly. It is fashionable to hate McDonalds as a brand, so we just know that when we’re doing what we think is good stuff – say Ronald McDonald House charities or community sponsorship programmes – we're still going to get people who love to chip in with a negative comment. But we’ve got thick skin. We’re the big guy, and we take some kind of solace in the fact we see one and a half million people each week. The people still come and we have to keep doing our job to make sure they feel good about the brand.

And those channels are the way to do that. 

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