Is McDonald’s’ Transparency Play a Worthy Template for Other Companies to Follow?

CEOs of all companies are carefully watching the aftermath of one of the boldest-ever transparency plays: that initiated by McDonald’s CEO Don Thompson. Thompson recently threw open the doors of its food-production processes to the public with a new online platform and a new PR and TV-advertising campaign. Will it work for beleaguered McDonald’s? Could a deeper thrust into transparency work for other CEOs? And what might be the unintended consequences of Thompson’s strategy?

“We have great information to share and we’re looking forward to engaging in two-way conversations with as many people as possible.”

Thompson’s decision is a major new strategic prong for a company that has been struggling with everything from weak U.S. sales to a lack of significant new products to a global breakdown in its once-sterling reputation for customer service. Years after it launched smaller but similar transparency initiatives in Canada and Australia, McDonald’s is answering critics’ complaints by showing how its food is produced via a multi-pronged campaign, called “Our food. Your questions.”

Thompson and his brain trust even went so far as to invite Good Morning America into one of its beef-supplier plants and to invite customers to ask McDonald’s questions online about its food content and safety, promising to answer the most common ones. “In today’s 24/7 news cycle, people are looking for faster, more straightforward responses to their questions about our food,” Ben Stringfellow, vice president of communications for McDonald’s USA, said in a statement. “We have great information to share and we’re looking forward to engaging in two-way conversations with as many people as possible.”

In that light, should Thompson have hit the transparency button sooner in the U.S. market? Questions about “pink slime” in Chicken McNuggets and McDonald’s burgers have dogged the brand online and in the news media for many years, providing a negative subtext that McDonald’s long has struggled to address.

But give Thompson credit for finally pulling the trigger on this effort. And also for tasking his marketing people to address even the difficult questions they knew would be coming, in advance. For instance, on the campaign’s home page, McDonald’s admits that, while it doesn’t use “pink slime” in its products any longer, it does use “a small amount of an anti-foaming agent” in the oil used to cook McNuggets and does use beef that have been fed with hormones.

“Thompson gets credit for tasking his marketing people to address even the difficult questions they knew would be coming, in advance.”

McDonald’s also squarely addresses another food-ingredient controversy with the kind of logic that usually is sorely missing in these debates. The chemical azodicarbonamide is an ingredient in its buns and rolls, McDonald’s admits. And, yes, this is the same substance that also is included in some non-food products such as yoga mats.

“As a result,” the McDonald’s explanation reads, “some people have suggested our food contains rubber or plastic, or that the ingredient is unsafe. It’s simply not the case. Think of salt: the salt you use in your food at home is a variation of the salt you may use to de-ice your sidewalk.”

But in at least one case, a ridiculous bit of speculation seems beyond the pale even for a transparency-building campaign, and the chain treats it with the respect it deserves. “Does McDonald’s beef contain worms?” the brand asks itself online. The answer: “No. Gross! End of story.”

What is your policy on transparency? Please share your experience and your advice for other CEOs in the comments below.

Dale Buss: Dale Buss is a long-time contributor to Chief Executive, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal and other business publications. He lives in Michigan.