Charles Ramsey And McDonald’s Corp: Heroic Twitter Opportunity, Exploitation Of Cleveland Kidnapping Victims, Or No-Win Situation?

McDonald's Sign
McDonald’s Corp. (NYSE:MCD) is expected to report FY 2013 second-quarter EPS of $1.40 on revenue of $7.10 billion, compared with a profit of $1.32 a share on revenue of $6.92 billion in the year-ago period. Reuters

MCD McDonald’s Corp. (NYSE:MCD) said it plans to personally reach out to Cleveland hero Charles Ramsey.  Reuters

The Golden Arches are cozying up to Charles Ramsey, but not everyone is lovin’ it.

On Wednesday, a spokesperson for McDonald’s Corp. (NYSE:MCD) said the company plans to “personally reach out” to the Cleveland man whose quick-thinking heroics helped put an end to a horrifying decade-long abduction. The fast-food behemoth was unwittingly pulled into the media frenzy after Ramsey’s destined-for-virality account of the rescue, which involved his eating a McDonald’s meal at the moment he heard screams coming from his neighbor’s home.

When news of Ramsey’s choice of cuisine broke, Twitter instantly lit up, as it tends to do. Thousands of users sent tweets to the company, imploring McDonald’s to respond to the shout out. The company eventually responded with a simple tweet commending Ramsey and saluting the courage of the victims, but the story didn’t -- or couldn’t -- end there.

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Ramsey has since become an Internet sensation, with all the memes, parody Twitter accounts and auto-tuned YouTube videos that go along with it. Under the hashtag #WorthLifetimeFries, Twitter users have continued to weave the McDonald’s brand into Ramsey’s celebrity narrative, with many users calling on the company to reward Ramsey’s heroics with free food.

In response to the outpouring, Danya Proud, director of communications for McDonald’s USA, released the following statement:

“Over the course of the past several days, thousands of people have reached out to us expressing their sentiment for McDonald's to do something for Mr. Ramsey. We hear them! That said, out of respect for the victims involved, as well as Mr. Ramsey, both McDonald's and the local franchisees will personally be reaching out to Mr. Ramsey directly as we said we would with our tweet.”

McDonald’s has yet to clarify what “reaching out” will entail. International Business Times reached out to Proud for additional information, but she declined to elaborate. It’s hard to blame her. However the McDonald’s-Ramsey pairing plays out, from a PR standpoint, it’s practically a no-win situation. On the one hand, any attempt by McDonald’s to capitalize on an event so replete with horrific details is not going to play well for a company that already has more than its share of enemies. (The Los Angeles Times has already called the company’s involvement “shameless.”)

At the same time, we’re living in the age of the eternal conversation, when even multinational brands are expected to acknowledge and embrace their role in user-generated pop culture. When footage of an NYPD officer giving a barefoot man a pair of Skechers went viral, Skechers USA (NYSE:SKX) responded by donating 50 pairs of insulated boots to a New York homeless shelter. But not everyone thinks that’s the best approach for McDonald’s in this situation.

“I would leave it alone,” said Bruce Rubin, senior counsel for rbb Public Relations, who specializes in crisis management. “If there is even the appearance that they’re taking advantage of an unfortunate situation, it could backfire.”

Rubin, who has worked on sensitive issues for everyone from private families to Fortune 500 companies, said the best approach for a big-name brand dealing with an unfolding situation is to play it conservatively. That means minimizing the unknown variables, something the animated Ramsey -- who has a history of domestic abuse -- is not likely to do.

“These things can get pretty squishy,” he said. “This individual is a character, but he seems like kind of a wild card.”

Large companies are notoriously image conscious, which is why they are sometimes reluctant to acknowledge their involvement in a viral phenomenon, even when circumstances aren’t so tragic. In February, when Florida Sen. Marco Rubio awkwardly lunged for a bottle of Poland Spring water during his rebuttal to President Obama’s State of the Union address, Twitter users beseeched the company within seconds, begging Poland Spring for a response.

Poland Spring’s parent company, Nestlé, waited until the following afternoon before posting a good-humored reply to its Facebook page. And yet even that small bit of hesitation led to charges that Poland Spring was out of touch. One social media professional told IBTimes that the bottled-water brand missed a “golden opportunity.”

Kim Garst, a social media branding strategist, said there are several factors that could complicate a similar effort in the case of McDonald’s, most notably Ramsey’s history of domestic abuse. What’s more, she said, McDonald’s is only further diluting the situation by dragging its feet.

“The incident occurred Monday,” she said. “It’s Thursday now. In the world of social media, that’s eons. The appearance will be that McDonald’s took the time to concoct a calculated response, probably involving their marketing department, legal team, etc. In a world where authenticity matters, this will not play well.”

Rubin has a slightly different take. He said he understands the pressure to respond to situations instantly via social media, but he said such responses can cause companies more harm than good. He said the wait-and-see approach may be out of fashion in the Twitter age, but it’s not obsolete.

“These things pass quicker than people realize,” he said. “I get calls from panicked clients all the time. They say, ‘We need to respond to this right away.’ I tell them, ‘No we don’t.’ There nothing in the Constitution that says you have to respond to something. You only have to respond if it’s in your best interest.”

Got a news tip? Send me an email. Follow me on Twitter: @christopherzara

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