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

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.

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.)

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Katherine Alexander

I can see that the illiterate white trash was out and active on this post during the month of October. You're very right, belledamnit. This man is arrogant and out of touch with the plight of his employees. I dont care if he did start at McDonalds making a $1.60. Dickens.cider might do well to acknowledge the multitude of low paying positions at McDonalds and the relatively few higher paid positions. McDonalds should pay all of their employees a living wage.

November 21 2013 at 6:04 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

If this is the attitude of the McDonald's CEO, then I've just eaten my last McDonald's food because I don't want to add to the bottom line of a company represented by someone so arrogant and out of touch with the plight of McDonald's employees.

October 17 2013 at 4:44 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to belledamnit's comment

You must have skipped the part of tbe story where it states he started out with McDs @$1.60 an hour.

October 17 2013 at 8:39 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

demsbaitnswitch3, a poor rural republican who lives in a poor red state who collects food stamps, welfare and lives in poverty. The sad thing is he works full time with no benefits.

October 16 2013 at 10:06 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply

As the dust settles, a number of Senate Republicans are looking around at the rubble and wondering how badly their party may have been damaged by the ordeal. Polls have shown the GOP's popularity plummeting over the last week, just as the tea party lawmakers driving the fight appeared less and less clear what they were fighting for in the first place. In the meantime, hundreds of thousands of federal workers went without pay, parks and monuments closed, and key federally funded programs -- from Head Start to cancer clinical trials -- endured major blows.
So did Republicans gain anything by forcing the showdown?

Republicans did not gain anything by forcing the showdown, but Americans did.
We gained the knowledge that republicans cannot be trusted to govern, they are simply incapable of it.
We have learned to listen to those who say they want to destroy our government. We now know that they are not speaking metaphorically, and that they truly do want to destroy our country with absolutely no plans about what to do if they are successful.
Now we can only hope that America remembers this lesson until the next election.

October 16 2013 at 9:54 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

So tell us demsbaitnswitch3 ,dickens.cider two tea bags Is Ted Cruz your pick for 2016? You know a teabagger can't win in a national election. What happen to Palin and Whackmann?

October 16 2013 at 9:38 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

He is entitled. He is white, educated and lucky. He knows best and the game is not about hamburgers or employees, it is about profit and dividend payments. So what that she could not afford shoes or food. There is food stamps, supplemental income programs, used clothing stores and maybe a church might help. The government set the minimum wage and the law is the law. Maybe some new job program will invent some new better paying jobs that have tax incentives for large corporations to keep the people down.

October 16 2013 at 9:35 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

No surprises. Red States love giving welfare to corps and then blame it on everything else.

Common sense says the higher the wages for the working class the more tax revenues will be created, the more infrastructure projects can be achieved, and abetter life for all will be had.

But red states do the opposite. Hand out subsidies / tax breaks then wonder why they are struggling when the jobs they received in return don't provide enough return on investment..

But its useless to argue with red state republicans they are really just that dumb, and that is proven by the dumb-asses being anti-union and accepting pathetic waged jobs with no benefits, and then blaming those who do make good money as the problem

October 16 2013 at 9:11 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to teaparty2implode's comment

You want to see a third world country, go south...................

October 16 2013 at 9:12 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to teaparty2implode's comment

LMFAO!!!!!!!!! problem there..........

October 16 2013 at 9:31 PM Report abuse rate up rate down

Meanwhile, taxpayers of the poorest state keep shelling out hundreds of millions to a profitable corporation while it produces a high percentage of jobs which keep so many Mississippians trapped in dire poverty.

October 16 2013 at 9:09 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

someone works at McDonalds for 10 years and can not do anything to better herself other than produce children ? who's fault is that ?

October 16 2013 at 8:59 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

Mississippi, The Poorest State, Hands Out Richest Auto Subsidy, Yet Winds Up With Lots Of Low-Pay Temp Jobs


The states of the old Confederacy have been extremely generous in handing out massive subsidies from their low-income taxpayers to the 13 foreign-owned auto assembly plants scattered from South Carolina to Texas. But the typical incentive package for the 12 other plants has been far lower than the subsidy Mississippi has handed to Nissan, at a comparatively modest average of $236.6 million. The Nissan plant in Canton thereby cost the state 5.6 times the average doled out to profitable auto firms in the other instances.

Mississippi's desperation for good jobs is understandable to a certain degree, as it has long remained dead last in income among the 50 states. Mississippians' earning have been held down by factors such as low educational attainment--the product extremely paltry spending on public education in the US-- and "right-to-work" laws that enable employers to break up unity within existing unions and hire only anti-union workers.

With a unionization rate of just 5.6%, Mississippians' median household income for 2011 was just $36,919, a mere 73% of the national median. Mississippi seems shackled to the nation's most severe poverty, afflicting 22.6% of all residents and 32% of children--highest in the nation. (The poverty rate in the US is 15.9% overall and 22% for children).

The low earning of Mississippi workers contribute to the fast-growing income gap between the richest 5% and the rest of the population. The top 5% of Mississippians earn 13.9 times as much as the bottom 20% and 4.9 times the incomes of the middle 20%, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

October 16 2013 at 8:57 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply