PUBLIC RELATIONS DISASTER EVER
by Nick Renton AM
The so-called "McLibel trial" was an infamous British court case involving libel, with important implications for public relations professionals and company managements.
McDonald's Corporation (a company listed on the New York Stock Exchange) and McDonald's Restaurants Limited (one of its subsidiaries) sued two unemployed environmental activists, Helen Marie Steel and David Morris, for defamation.
They had been instrumental in distributing a brochure critical of McDonald's and accusing the company of a number of undesirable practices such as those mentioned below - everything from selling unhealthy food to exploiting its workers and destroying the South American rain forests.
The case ran for some two-and-a-half years in London and became the longest ever English trial. The two defendants, having been denied legal aid, were forced to argue their case in person. The judge, Mr Justice Roger Bell, delivered his 800-page verdict on 1997-06-19.
It was a public relations disaster for McDonald's. The judge ruled that they had exploited children with their advertising, had produced misleading advertising, were culpably responsible for cruelty to animals, were antipathetic to unionisation and paid their workers low wages.
But Steel and Morris had failed to prove all their points and so the court ruled that they had indeed libelled McDonald's. The judge awarded damages of 60,000 pounds. They refused to pay and McDonald's knew better than to pursue the matter.
In March 1999 the Court of Appeal made further rulings against McDonald's in relation to heart disease and employment.
If the company had ignored the brochure it would have been seen by a small number of people and that would have been the end of the matter. By suing, the company in effect gave the brochure and the allegations in it massive exposure - the text was posted on a number of web sites and read by a great many people. In particular, McSpotlight was created. It can still be accessed by those wanting further details of the case beyond this brief summary. It is located at this site.
By the summer of 2003 McSpotlight had been accessed some 184,675,000 times.
It is true that all this unfavourable publicity did not seem to adversely affect McDonald's sales - after all, children who enjoy junk food and their parents do not really care whether or not the company was responsible for destroying rain forests in South America and similarly in regard to the other allegations. But the case did harm the image of the company and tied up management resources for years. Its executives were made to look foolish under cross-examination. The case also cost the company many millions of dollars.
The business community should really take the lessons of McLibel to heart.
© N E Renton 2006
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