Dealing With Tragedy

The business world was shocked on Monday when it was announced that McDonald’s Chairman and CEO Jim Cantalupo had died of an apparent heart attack.

“It is with great sadness that I announce that Jim Cantalupo, our Chairman and CEO, died suddenly and unexpectedly of an apparent heart attack this morning in Orlando, Florida, site of the McDonald’s Worldwide Owner/Operator Convention,” read a statement attributed to McDonald’s Presiding Director Andrew J. McKenna.

“Our entire McDonald’s system mourns this tragic loss, and our thoughts and prayers are with Jim’s wife, Joann, and his family. Our deepest sympathies go out to them,” McKenna continued. “Jim was a brilliant man who brought tremendous leadership, energy and passion to his job. He made an indelible mark on McDonald’s system.”

The press release announcing Cantalupo’s death was followed about two-and-a-half hours later with one announcing that President Chief Operating Officer Charlie Bell would take over as CEO of McDonald’s.

“Perhaps the greatest legacy that Jim Cantalupo left to our McDonald’s system is the talent and commitment of the senior management team he assembled,” McKenna said. “We can never replace Jim’s brilliance or leadership, but we will honor him by continuing his passion for McDonald’s.”

They say tragedy brings out the best in some people and in this case, it appears it has brought out the best in McDonald’s executive and public relations teams.

Dealing with tragedy is difficult enough on a personal level, but when you have to go about your job, the situation can become devastating. For public relations people, it can be even worse – they have to deliver the tragic message.

I spoke with a PR person who has been in the shoes of McDonald’s PR people. He has dealt with tragedy in the past as a spokesperson for a major U.S. company. He asked not to be named because of the nature of the tragedy that affected his company.

Q: In the case of the corporate tragedy, how did you learn about what transpired?

A: I got a call from the Chairman of our company informing me about what happened. Before I even got off the phone, I was getting calls from journalists.

Q: What did you tell that first wave of journalists?

A: I was very honest and told them that [the company] was still gathering information and we expected to make a statement within the hour. I asked that they wait until we had released our statement before they called back.

Q: Once you were informed of the news, what did you do next?

A: I called my team together and we set-up a conference call. I had the majority of my key people on a conference call within ten minutes and we patched in key executive calls. I wasn’t the senior PR person at the company at the time, but I was the senior PR person on the call, so I had to take charge.

Q: What was the call like?

A: It was strange because we were all in shock, but we knew we had a job to do. The first thing I did was to ask our executives for all the information they had. From there, we decided what information needed to be made public immediately and began crafting a statement.

Q: How long did it take from the end of the call to release a statement?

A: I think it was less than twenty minutes. On the call, I instructed two team members to take notes. And I was taking notes also. We had the statement done by the end of the call and I read it back to everyone to confirm it was what we wanted to release.

Q: Did anyone have a problem with the statement?

A: We changed one of the quotes from our Chairman a few times. We wanted to express our sorrow, but do it in a way that people understood we had to go on. It was difficult because we didn’t want anyone coming away from our statement feeling we were callous. At the same time, we had to express the fact that we had a job to do.

Q: Did the company hold a press conference?

A: We had a press conference at our headquarters that afternoon, but in the interim, we held a conference call with the media and we responded to television interview requests by making our executives available to a few media outlets.

Q: Was the communication between your team and executives good that first day?

A: We were in constant contact and we assigned a PR person to each of key executives. We wanted to make sure that everyone had the “line” down. We weren’t trying to spin anyone, but we wanted to make sure we got out the same message and didn’t put out misleading information.

Q: Looking back, do you think you got out the message you wanted?

A: I think we did. It was difficult and there was some screaming at producers and reporters who were reporting things that certainly weren’t true. But that’s how the news moves these days, so there wasn’t much we could do about. When the smoke cleared some weeks later, we sort of did an audit of all the press coverage to see how we were portrayed.

Q: Did you find any surprises?

A: The one thing that sticks in my mind is some of the television coverage. The print coverage was, for the most part, accurate and fair. The television coverage was another story. All these pundits and ‘experts’ were talking about our company and the tragic events and they really didn’t have any solid information. It was all just speculation and dredging up issues and things from the past that had no connection to the events.

Q: Did you complain to the media outlets about this coverage?

A: We decided the best course of action was to complain, if that’s the word, to the people who made the statements. You can’t blame CNN or ABC for sticking a microphone in front of someone. We sent letters to the people who said things that were either wrong or just dumb.

Q: Was there any response?

A: I think we sent out about ten letters and two people responded. One apologized and said he was unprepared for the questions and, I’ll never forget this, he said he didn’t know why he was being interviewed about the subject in the first place.

Q: What did the other person say?

A: He said his opinion hadn’t changed, which was funny because his interview was about facts, not opinion. He had all his facts wrong, but I guess in his opinion, the facts didn’t matter.

Q: Have you caught any of the McDonald’s coverage? How do you think they’ve handled it?

A: I read the news on Monday morning and was very saddened. [Jim Cantalupo] was really turning the company around and he was very well-respected. I think the company has handled everything well. It’s a difficult type of tragedy to deal with because it’s a personal one that doesn’t affect the general populace. That makes handling it worse, I think. But I think they’ve done a great job because they’ve made it known how important Cantalupo was to the company, but that they’ll go on and build on what he has done. That’s a wonderful message to get across and a nice tribute.

Q: What advice would you give PR people who have to deal with tragedies related to their companies or clients?

A: I think the most important thing to remember is to stay calm. It’s like being the Captain who goes down with his ship. You have to be one of the people who blocks out the emotion of an event and do your job. You also have to be more careful than ever about what you say. The media will always have inaccurate information out there, even if it’s just for a short time, so you have to keep your head and realize the truth will get out there eventually.

Q: Thank for your time. Anything else you would like to add?

A: I would just remind people that having an emergency PR plan in place is important. We had a call tree, or whatever you call it. Like those old car pool lists, ready. Everyone knew their task ahead of time and understood what was expected of them. Just be prepared because you never know what can happen.

This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (, a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (, the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit:

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