When does a local story become a national crisis?
Some mistakes are so boneheaded—or inspire enough fear in consumers—that the story will spread far beyond its local origins. That was the case for McDonald’s when a Canadian franchise served a customer a cup of cleaning solution instead of a latte.
Sarah Douglas of Lethbridge, Alberta, was on her way to her son’s baseball tournament when she went to a McDonald’s drive-through for a latte.
It wasn’t until she was on the highway that she suspected something was wrong, she told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.
“I immediately had to put my hazard lights on and pull over and spit it out and rinse my mouth out with … water,” Douglas said. “I opened up the lid of the coffee and out pours this pungent smell of chemical. It wasn’t a latte at all.”
McDonald’s did not issue a national response, but local franchise operator Dan Brown gave a statement:
Since learning about the complaint, our team has been in very close contact with the guest and apologized to her. The health inspector also visited my restaurant and is not investigating further.
McDonald’s is renowned for its food safety protocols and I am sorry that this happened in my restaurant here in Lethbridge.
What happened is that the machine was being cleaned—as it is every morning. Unfortunately, the milk supply line was connected to the cleaning solution while this guest’s drink was made.
We have taken immediate action to review the proper cleaning procedures with the team and have put additional signage up as an added reminder.
Newsweek unearthed tweets suggesting that the machine mix-up wasn’t an isolated incident:
Got to love a @McDonalds Coffee with hints of cleaning solution ð
— Stephen Frid (@Stephen_Frid) August 30, 2015
— Annie Hagaman (@AnnieHagaman) February 18, 2018
Yo @McDonalds, care to explain why my sweet tea tastes like cleaning solution? Not cool man, not cool.
— Evan Kargl (@EvanKargl) April 5, 2014
The tweets corroborate the story of Douglas, who says an employee told her the mistake had been made before.
“The supervisor went and got the bottle that was hooked up to it and brought it over to the counter, and I took a picture of it, so I knew what I was working with—what I had consumed so I could talk to 811 and poison control.
“I took a picture of it and then another co-worker of his had also overheard what had been going on, and was a little bit upset at the situation and said that this had happened before. And she was a little mad that it was occurring again.”
The pattern of the mistake might be what has caused the story to break through, coupled with fact that Douglas is pregnant. Crisis communicators know they can’t predict what will cause a story to go viral, which is why it’s crucial to be prepared.
On social media, users shared their shock at Douglas’ situation:
She was served cleaning product you tool. She should get a payout. Corporations and their franchises don’t learn unless there’s serious collateral. She could have had a miscarriage. She’s not overreacting, McDonalds is underracting.
— you’re an idiot (@idiotalert_) August 1, 2018
Others remarked on the many ways the chain’s reputation has taken a hit in recent weeks:
This been a rough week for @McDonalds they’ve served a pregnancy woman cleaning solution instead of coffee, they monopoly game had been discovered to be a scam, and their food poisoned thousands.
— Dawgfather (@kylekirkland_) August 1, 2018
Still others hoped McDonald’s would get slapped with a lawsuit:
So apparently @McDonalds is serving cleaning solution with their coffee now??? I hope this poor lady sues the living hell out of you!!! This is utterly disgusting! Did I mention she was pregnant! I really hope this story goes viral! It’s completely unacceptable!
— aaron clarke (@A_Bomb911) August 1, 2018
Some seemed unfazed by the news:
twitter moments: mcdonalds gave a pregnant woman cleaning solution instead of a latte
me planning out what im gonna get at mcdonalds after class in my head: pic.twitter.com/O9SocFBAdJ
— she gay dude stop it lol ð (@haleyy625) August 1, 2018
Others went back in time to look at McDonald’s history of poor coffee service, including the famous lawsuit after a 79-year-old patron received third-degree burns from a spilled coffee:
How does a coffee line get switched with a cleaning solution line? Come on #McDonalds …..why is there such a struggle with coffee service through the years? It used to be too hotttt that it burned people…now it could literally kill someone? #Disturbing #Getittogether #Coffee pic.twitter.com/CmHSJYwqaw
— Erica Lynn Butler (@EricaLynnButler) August 2, 2018
How would you respond, PR Daily readers?