How McDonald's President Could Have Dodged a Low-Wage PR Fiasco

<b class="credit">Left: AP, Courtesy of McDonald's Corp. Right: Alamy</b>McDonald's USA President Jeff Stratton
Left: AP, Courtesy of McDonald's Corp. Right: AlamyMcDonald's USA President Jeff Stratton

Ronald McDonald. The Hamburglar. Grimace. For many of us who knew McDonald's (MCD) growing up in decades gone by, these were the faces of one of the world's largest corporations -- and they were faces we liked.

Today, the of the company is McDonald's USA President Jeff Stratton. And sad to say, Stratton isn't quite as lovable as those mostly retired corporate mascots.

Workers Push for a Living Wage

As the Chicago Tribune reported, Stratton appeared as keynote speaker at a monthly luncheon of Chicago's Union League Club earlier this month, intending to speak on the subjects of "work and life, including faith and gratitude."

Not long into his talk, however, he was interrupted by a group of protesters from the fast-food workers' activist group Fight for $15, who wanted to talk about something else.

One of the protesters, McDonald's worker Nancy Salgado, ask Stratton to explain how his company could earn $5.5 billion in profits last year, yet pay its workers so little that they can't afford to buy shoes for their children. As Salgado put it: "It's really hard for me to feed my two kids and struggle day to day. Do you think this is fair, that I have to be making $8.25 when I have worked for McDonald's for 10 years?"

You Have the Right (or Is It the Obligation?) to Remain Silent

You can probably guess what happened next. The mother of two was threatened with arrest for trespassing, and detained along with six other protesters. Ultimately, they were released without being arrested, and ticketed on the trespassing charges.

Some might argue this was a bit over the top, given that Fight for $15 said it bought tickets to the event for 10 of its members, meaning they had every right to attend the luncheon. (Generally speaking, though, a ticket to an event comes with implied conditions on the right to attend. In particular, it doesn't confer a right to disrupt the event.)

Legalities aside, what's most interesting about this kerfuffle is how McDonald's president handled it -- or rather, how he failed to take advantage of an opportunity to speak directly to his company's employyes on a human level.

Before security ejected Salgado and the other protesters from the luncheon, Stratton did respond briefly to her questions. Specifically, when she told him that she had worked at McDonald's for 10 years, yet had never received a raise, he responded: "I've been there 40 years!"

Don't Forget the Little People

But that's just the point. When Stratton was promoted to his current position in November 2012, McDonald's won praise for hiring from within, and for choosing as its president a man who worked his way up from crew member at a Detroit-area McDonald's 40 years ago to one of the top jobs in the entire company. Not coincidentally, the person Stratton replaced as president of McDonald's USA, Jan Fields, had also begun at the bottom as a crew member, and worked her way up.

%VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%You've got to figure that the company behind Ronald McDonald and the Ronald McDonald House knows the power of a good human-interest story.

McDonald's picked Fields and Stratton to represent it in part because of what they represent: rags-to-riches stories of ordinary cooks, cashiers, and floor-moppers who "made good." They're living proof that at McDonald's, hard work, perseverance, and loyalty to the company can pay off.

Tarnished Arches

Given his resume, Stratton would seem to be the perfect spokesman to point out to Salgado the opportunities his company provides -- and give her a bit of personal advice on how to make the most of those opportunities. After all, he himself started out riding a register for $1.60 an hour, according to the Tribune. Now he's earning much more, of course. Public information about his salary is hard to come by, but according to a Bloomberg report from last November, his predecessor, Jan Fields, earned $2.15 million in 2011, including a base salary of around $593,000.

So let's assume Stratton isn't having trouble affording footwear.

But Stratton had a golden opportunity to show a bit of empathy for an employee having a hard time. Instead, he dismissed Salgado's problems -- and those of many of his lower-paid employees -- with a quip, and went right on with his business.

Imagine how much differently things might have gone had Stratton thought just a little faster on his feet.

What if, instead of belittling her 10 years of service for the company, he had used the opportunity to connect with her on a personal level, and showed that "McDonald's cares"? What if Stratton had taken a stroll down memory lane, and offered a few words of advice on how he got where he is today? What if he had taken a few moments to suggest positions within the company she might apply for, or training programs she could enter to help improve her skills -- before getting back to his talk for the corporate muckety-mucks in attendance?

He could have turned a nasty confrontation -- and a PR fiasco for McDonald's -- into a publicity coup.

File this story under: Opportunity lost.

Motley Fool contributor Rich Smith has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends McDonald's. The Motley Fool owns shares of McDonald's.

(Editor's Note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Salgado and her fellow protestors were arrested. This was not the case. While they were detained and threatened with arrest, the police ticketed them on the trespassing charge and released them.)

Originally published