McDonald’s Social Media Director Explains Twitter Fiasco

This morning I spoke with McDonald’s social media director, Rick Wion, about how the company’s own Twitter ad became a viral delight for pot heads and social critics. Here’s a detailed account of how the #McFail debacle went down.

According to Wion, the fast-food chain’s troubles began after it launched a 24-hour campaign to insert promoted tweets into the streams of Twitter users. The campaign was intended to share happy farmer stories and featured two keyword hashtags. The company used these hashtags in its tweets and also paid for them to appear at the top of the results when a user searched for those terms.

The campaign proceeded uneventfully until 2pm last Wednesday when McDonald’s switched from its first hash-tag #MeetTheFarmers to its second one #McDStories.

“Within an hour, we saw that it wasn’t going as planned,” said Wion. “It was negative enough that we set about a change of course.”

Even though the company used the hashtag only twice, a legion of critics pounced on #McDStories to tell their own tales of weed or animal cruelty. Some offered crass personal accounts like that of @MuzzaFuzza who wrote “I haven’t been to McDonalds in years, because I’d rather eat my own diarrhea.”

The hashtag continues to take on a Twitter life of its own — most recently as a social media parable for marketers.

If there’s any consolation for McDonald’s, it’s that the company’s original positive message (“When u make something w/pride, people can taste it”) continues to appear at the top of the search results. This is happening not because the company is paying for it to stay there (as I speculated earlier) but because of the tweet’s popularity.

“It’s what we call a “Top Tweet” — a Tweet that is getting extremely high engagement when people do a search for a term. These are chosen algorithmically,” explained Twitter spokesman Matt Graves, adding that any tweet that is promoted at the time will be clearly marked in yellow.

The #McDStories will subside eventually but there remains the question of whether McDonald’s could have done anything differently.

According to Wion, McDonald’s carefully selects the words or phrases used to describe its promoted tweets but that it’s inevitable both “fans and detractors will chime in” (although the latter appear to have a clear majority in this case..)

His point appears to be that a certain amount of social media blowback is unavoidable if a company is a lightning rod in the first place.

The episode also shows that, in the case of Twitter, a hashtag released into the wild can’t be re-captured: