News broke Sunday that McDonald's had fired its president and CEO, Steve Easterbrook, who had led the company for four years, and I'm struck by how McDonald's handled the announcement.

The reason given: "the Board's determination that he violated company policy and demonstrated poor judgment involving a recent consensual relationship with an employee."

There aren't many other details available.

But the way McDonald's rolled this out is instructive -- and I think will serve as a great example for any other company that has to share bad news.

Easterbrook himself was quoted in an email sent to McDonald's employees:

"It has been an honour to work alongside all of you as we reinvigorated the brand McDonald's brand. As I reflect on my tenure as CEO, these have been the most fulfilling years of my working life.

...

As for my departure, I engaged in recent consensual relationship with an employee, which violated McDonald's policy. This was a mistake. Given the values of the Company, I agree with the Board that it is time for me to move on. Beyond this, I hope you can respect my desire to maintain my privacy."

I've written quite a bit about Easterbrook over the years, but I've never met him. I can't comment on his conduct -- except to say that in 2019, it's unsurprising, and a good thing, that these kinds of things are taken seriously.

That said, I'm highly impressed (from a professional perspective) at how McDonald's handled all of this via its press statements Sunday. At least three things jump out:

The headline

I first heard about this when the alerts I have set to basically every major media organization in America started blowing up on my phone. They all referenced a McDonald's press release, so I went straight to the McDonald's corporate PR page.

Honestly, it took me a minute or two even to find the statement about Easterbrook being fired, because its headline was aggressively bland: "McDonald's Corporation Announces Leadership Transition.

Hat's off to whomever at McDonald's PR crafted that one. 

The first point

McDonald's has to know that the headline of every news organization would focus on Easterbrook's departure. But that doesn't mean it had to lead its statement with that news.

Instead, it begins with the forward-looking news that Chris Kempczinski, who was most recently the president of McDonald's USA, will now be the new overall CEO. 

If you read this in a vacuum and just stopped there, you'd almost forget that this was completely unexpected, and that it happened on a Sunday afternoon.

In case there's any doubt however, this happened quickly enough that at least as of the time I'm writing this, Easterbrook was still listed as the CEO on the McDonald's "Leadership Team" page.

The second press release

When bad news happens -- and no matter how this turns out for McDonald's in the future, it's bad news to have to fire your CEO for a relationship with an employee -- you want to put it behind you as quickly as you can.

McDonald's can't control that of course, but I was struck that it decided to announce Kempczinski's replacement as the head of McDonald's USA in a completely separate statement -- released after the one about Easterbrook's departure.

That means the statement about Easterbrook was the "latest" news at McDonald's for just a very short time. (The new head of McDonald's USA is Joe Erlinger, who was previously president, of the company's international operated markets.)

Without knowing, I'd have to guess that this whole situation became an issue within McDonald's over the weekend.

I say that because the more classic way to announce controversial news like this would be to roll it out on a Friday evening, so that by Monday it's likely already been pushed out of the news cycle.

But setting that aside, it's an intriguing lesson in how to handle bad news and share it with the world.

Published on: Nov 3, 2019
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