McDonald’s Under Storm

An example of why addressing customer complaints in the age of social media is vital to your business.

In today’s social media driven world, customer service is key to positive word-of-mouth, no matter the size of your chain or the scope of the complaint. If you doubt the seriousness of addressing customer complaints in a timely and serious manner, look no further than the ballooning battle cry of parents around the cleanliness and safety of McDonald’s playground equipment that has the company battling a hailstorm of negative publicity.

Yes, even a QSR giant like McDonald’s is not immune to missteps in today’s consumer-driven and social media savvy environment where customers around the world can ban together in a matter of minutes, all with the help of the Internet. The chain is proof that regardless of your clout as a business, how you handle customer complaints will determine whether the situation will be calmly resolved or potentially blowup in your face. 

What’s now a social media nightmare for McDonald’s, began as a single, manageable customer complaint. Chandler, Ariz. resident Dr. Erin Carr-Jordan, a mother of four, a professor at Arizona State University and a McDonald’s customer, was dismayed to discover filthy playground equipment at a local McDonald’s back in April 2011. She alerted a manager, and returned four weeks later to find nothing had been cleaned. This time she took a video, which shows blood, Bandaids and feces as well as broken equipment. She also gathered swabs from the equipment and had lab tests done that allegedly show dangerous bacteria, including antibiotic-resistant Staph or MRSA, known to cause potentially life-threatening infections.

She put the video on YouTube alerting parents to the issue and urging them to wipe their children’s hands with hand sanitizer before eating at the establishment.  She said she left her name and number for managers with a note on the test results.

When she went on vacation with her family a short time later, she discovered more playgrounds that were unsanitary, and she began to do more research, lab tests and video posts. Her story made it onto the evening news and onto the front page of newspapers.

But it wasn’t until this Monday, Oct. 24, when  Carr-Jordan received a letter from a local McDonald’s franchisee’s attorney stating that she is no longer allowed in any of his McDonald’s restaurants that have playgrounds, that McDonald’s problems really started.

Carr-Jordan is now banned from a total of eight sites in Gilbert, Chandler and Phoenix, Ariz. “Rather than have someone come into the playgrounds and do the right thing and make them clean and safe, they told me not to come in anymore,” Carr-Jordan told national news stations.   

A McDonald’s spokesperson explained the legal action prohibiting Carr-Jordan from entering the restaurants to news stations: “…..recent actions by Dr. Carr-Jordan have become disruptive to the employees and customers within our franchisee’s restaurants.” McDonald’s also stated it was committed to addressing Carr-Jordan’s concerns and reviewing her findings. Maybe 10 years ago, such tactics would have been enough. But in 2011, in an age of iPhones and social media, McDonald’s response has only inspired an outpouring of customers to rally behind  Carr-Jordan’s cause.

In the five days that followed, Carr-Jordan watched her Facebook friend base more than double, her Twitter feed quadrupled and she opened her inbox Thursday to find 700 new emails from supportive parents rallying for her cause. Many people are contacting her Web page asking about information and legislation, and contacting their representatives demanding action. “Now I have parents in other parts of the country and all over the world that are contacting me, saying, “Hey, I’m not banned from McDonald’s, if you have swabs or you want me to take video of playgrounds I am happy to do it,” she said.  

In other words, by failing to show Carr-Jordan that it was taking concrete steps to quickly address the issue, McDonald’s problem has now multiplied. While Carr-Jordan said she has been in contact with the director of operations at McDonalds on a regular basis, and McDonald’s has assured her it has been reviewing its policy, “the problem is they’re not doing anything. We just keep having the same conversation,” she said.

What could the chain have done differently to avoid the mass media attention?

“Their original response should have been and should still be, ‘Thank you for bringing to our attention that there is something wrong here either in the application or the protocol itself or the lack thereof. And we are addressing it. We care about children and this is how we are correcting the problem,” Carr-Jordan said. “They could not have handled this particular situation any worse.”

Now instead of one angry mom, McDonald’s is facing a firestorm from enraged parents across the globe. And where in April the request was “Please clean this local playground,” it’s now going to take a lot more to silence the outcry. “They need to implement corporate-wide policies that have regular, thorough and verifiable cleaning and disinfecting maintenance,” she said.

The takeaway? Manage those complaints early and work to fix any problems that arise.  

This is especially important because customers who have had a negative experience at an establishment are likely to tell twice as many people about that experience as those that had a positive encounter, noted Jim Callahan, who has more than 40 years of experience as a convenience store and petroleum marketer.  In fact, Carr-Jordan noted there are many restaurants and organizations with playgrounds that are clean and have proper protocols in place. But those aren’t the sites she’s sharing videos of on YouTube or the evening news. 

Carr-Jordan is not waiting for McDonald’s to fix the problem. She wrote the Kids Play Safe Bill, which amends current public health code and playground safety standards. Illinois and California are already sponsoring the bill, which is expected to be up for a vote in January.

The bill could even impact some convenience stores. “There are a few c-stores that have playlands now, so they would most certainly fall under the regulation that I’ve written, and they would fall under the same regulations I’m asking McDonald’s to implement,” she noted.  

Hopefully, c-stores will have learned from McDonald’s and be ready to respond in a way that calms rather than escalates the problem. An international entity like McDonald’s will surely recover from the negative publicity, but a small c-store chain might not be so lucky if they find themselves in a similar situation.

For more on why managing customer complaints quickly and effectively in today’s social marketing environment is crucial to your business, check out Jim Callahan’s Convenience Store Solutions blog on p. 20 of CSD’s November issue.




  1. Concerned Parent says:

    Thank you for publishing this article and bringing this to my attention!  Thank you Carr-Jordan for caring about the safety of our kids!

  2. While I don’t dispute the lack of cleanliness in the playground areas, nor the manner in which McDonald’s addressed her specific situation, I wish Ms Carr-Jordan would take swabs from any public playground, the desks at her children’s schools, any counter top in any public place, the counter tops at her own home, etc., and have those tested.  I believe she will find that bacteria exists everywhere, some that she may find shocking in places other than a private playground.

    • Aajv Ideas says:

      aren’t you missing the point? if there is a problem, fix it. She did not say to count and see how many more there are.

    • The conditions at this original playground clearly sounded substandard, and the handling of the customer complaint was abhorrent; the franchisee deserves whatever he gets at this stage. But your point is dead-on: by sampling only McDonald’s playgrounds, Carr-Jordan has created a biased hysteria while turning a blind eye to realities of the physical world:bacteria is everywhere. Every so often there is a story in the news about bacteria levels on doorknobs, subway turnstiles—you name it. The takeaway: each individual must be accountable and protect themselves. One can only wonder if the “best intent” of Carr-Jordan’s legislation won’t have unintended consequences: will schools and communities suddenly face significantly higher — or unattainable— standards ? As a university professor, Carr-Jordan should know better than to spend so much time at a McDonalds anyway.

  3. Izzytahil says:

    A few months ago, I went into a McD’s and ordered a breakfast sandwich.  The person took my order and took my money.  She then started counting a stack of bills and went back to the kitchen.  Without putting gloves on, or even using tongs, she picked up the sausage pattie with her bare hands and put it in my sandwich and served it to me!!!!  Politely, I told her that it was not sanitary after counting money to touch food.  The reaction I got was a shrug of shoulders and a look of not understanding.  I asked for the manager so this practice should be checked, and get this, SHE was the manager…

  4. Aajv Ideas says:

    This is a good article, and I applaud those who get out of their way to do the right thing.

  5. Wbbellyboy says:

    the only problem I see is that now McDonald’s will take ALL playgrounds from their establishments so in the end,the customers always lose.

  6. Lets make it right says:

    I don’t feel Carr-Jordan is singling McDonalds out this just happen to be the playground she was at in her area.  I’m sure there are other play areas that are not as they should be but there always has to be an example made for others to get in line.  When this bill is passed it will cover ALL play areas in restaurants so cleanliness will become the standard.  Sure there is bacteria in many of the places are kids go but if we always continue to say “well its everywhere, what’s the point” things will never get solved.  It has to start somewhere and McDonald’s just happened to be the place.

  7. itsmechristymarie says:

    In the end, I bet all playgrounds will “go away” because of the costs to maintain them-especially after the Bill is put into place.  I agree that they should be cleaned and sanitized, but soon the places that have these will not be able to pay the costs to do so.  Many fast food chains/pizza places, etc have already removed them in California. 

  8. keep it clean , like we do

  9. Isaacthelocals says:

    McDonalds could take out the playground equipment altogether and be dome with it

  10. Worst managerial skills exhibited by manager on duty at Reedswood Mcdonalds Walsall on Tuesday 18th August 2015 at about 6:30am. After place my order for a breakfast meal, I was asked to choose a drink I want with my meal and I said I didn’t want any drink. I was then asked to proceed to the next window to make payment and to the next window for my order. Upon receiving my order, I realised it was incomplete and so I drove round to the window where I placed my order to ask why my order was incomplete and the attendant said she thought I didn’t want the meal since I didn’t choose any drink with it. Before I could say jack, someone from inside came from nowhere and shut the window preventing the attendant from talking to me. I was so unhappy and so I went inn intending to express my displeasure to the manager only to realise it was actually the manager on duty who shut the window in my face. Upon asking why she did that, she rather accused my of being rude to the attendant. As if denying me of something I paid for wasn’t infurating enough, the manager had the infantry to lie that I was being rude to the attendant.

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