Superficially McDonald's and the government are different. But when you get closer they have at least one thing in common: an enormous, diverse customer base, many of whom rely on the institution for daily subsistence.
Normally the government is very cautious about responding to its critics. The reasons are infinite and familiar: many different interests at play - the need to speak in unison - the wild and provocative nature of some of the attacks - the impossibility of answering every one.
Plus there is this sense that to play defense is to lose. You don't want to get into mudslinging. (And add to that the fact that some back-and-forthing has to do with ongoing investigations, or confidential material that simply cannot be shared.)
All of this is why the speech by Don Johnson, CEO of McDonald's at the company's annual meeting was so refreshing. According to a report in Brandchannel.com, "Nutrition Critics Get No Apology From McDonald's CEO At Annual Meeting," (May 24, 2013) Johnson aggressively took apart their comments point by point.
Here are some key takeaways perhaps applicable to other contexts:
1. Validate Accurate Criticism: A corporate responsibility group said McDonald's was promoting obesity. Johnson in effect validated that this used to be true.
2. Show Improvement: Johnson pointed out the healthier menu options now available to increase choice.
3. Never Apologize For Your Mission: The McDonald's also said clearly that the brand is about "fun," and that it's not a bad thing to let kids enjoy junky food every now and then. (Score one for simple rationality -- it makes your critics look like ridiculous duds.)
4. Point Out Attempts To Manipulate Your Story: In response to charges that McDonald's directly aimed to exploit communities of color by marketing to them, Johnson said, point blank: "McDonald's is not the brand that you describe." Period.
5. Establish a connection with your critics: Johnson noted that he grew up in a low-income housing project in Chicago. The underlying message: I am one of you - I would not betray you. While this could backfire, it's effective if it's perceived as sincere - a way of breaching the gap between the corporate boardroom and its corporate accountability critics.
The bottom line is, large organizations should avoid excessive timidity about corporate messaging. It's OK to be "human" - nobody is perfect - and most people understand that at times "mistakes were made." While of course you can't defend wrongdoing, avoiding public remarks entirely is never a solution. Rather, admit it and go on.
The rest of the time, when the criticism involves a large area of gray, it is important to stand up for yourself. Talk about your efforts to improve, and never apologize for being who you are.
* All opinions, as always, are my own.