Want fries with that Cleveland rescue video?

Imagine for a moment you lead McDonald's marketing department. Your company's name is suddenly—and repeatedly—thrust into the news for being the food Charles Ramsey was eating when he rescued a young kidnapped woman in Cleveland and became a viral video star.

On the one hand, thousands of customers are reportedly reaching out to you asking you do something for Ramsey, tweeting that he should get free food for life or some other kind of recognition and reward. One of the first rules of social media, after all, is to join the conversation, and not look unaware of a discussion going on about your brand. Meanwhile, jumping in could make you look like like an opportunist, distastefully trying to get some good P.R. in the midst of a horrific situation.

(Scott Shaw/AP)
(Scott Shaw/AP)

So what should you do? In hindsight, it seems obvious that the best course of action would be to stay quiet, at least for now. McDonald's didn't. On Tuesday afternoon, it tweeted: "we salute the courage of Ohio kidnap victims & respect their privacy. Way to go Charles Ramsey- we’ll be in touch." In response, social media experts and arm chair analysts have been offering their thoughts on McDonald's tweet, with a few complimenting the fast food company for "taking its cues from customers" but many more criticizing what it said.

"I call it news-jacking," one P.R. firm head was quoted as saying. "Inappropriate at best," wrote another observer. (A McDonald's spokeswoman has told media outlets the chain wants to speak to Ramsey directly rather than through the media and that “this is a very tragic situation and we can't lose sight of that.")

But does keeping quiet mean McDonald's should do nothing? Not necessarily. Companies inject themselves into viral stories all the time, such as when Skechers donated 50 pairs of boots to a New York homeless shelter in the wake of the story about a New York City cop who bought boots for a man on the street. When they don't, they're criticized: Witness Poland Spring's so-called "missed opportunity" to jump in on the Twitterverse's jokes about Marco Rubio's awkward sips of water in his response to the president's State of the Union address. The glaring differences in these cases, of course, is that the Skechers and Poland Spring moments were either feel-good news or innocuous cases of political awkwardness; neither involved the kind of unspeakable horrors that the Cleveland case did.

Here's the thing: The Golden Arches did get some publicity, without trying, by Charles Ramsey's repeated references to what he was eating. Even if the tweet seemed like little more than corporate opportunism, it's also easy to believe that the company's marketing executives may have felt a desire to give something back in response. It's natural in such a situation to want to do something good. So give money to the women's families, to organizations that help find kidnapped children, or to non-profits that help victims recover from assault. Even give Charles Ramsey quarter pounders for life if you feel like it. I can guarantee you, in today's media landscape, the news will get out.

But as one P.R. expert told USA Today, "you don't have to tweet about it."

Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.

Read also:

We could stand to be more like Charles Ramsey

Charles Ramsey: Internet star, hero or both?

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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