PR and comms working in the UK fast food sector have focused their efforts predominantly on health-related messages, as fast food continues to maintain its long-standing reputation for being unhealthy, to the extent that researchers draw comparisons with the tobacco sector.
However, our analysis of 990 articles published in UK media since the beginning of the year found that the fixation on health narratives only skims the surface of the sector’s reputational challenges. There are a number of other issues that are detrimental to the image of the UK’s fast food industry, and which PR and comms have not addressed due to their preoccupation with health-related messages.
Employing granular insights from media analytics can illuminate these overlooked areas, allowing for a proactive strategy known as “issues landscaping” to identify and tackle such underlying concerns before they burgeon into larger crises. Here are the most pertinent ones:
1. Labour practices
Our analysis found that Labour practices have emerged as a growing issue in the UK discourse around fast food brands, now occupying a segment of the debate nearly as prominent as that of health concerns.
The UK fast food industry has faced criticism in the media primarily due to allegations of low wages, precarious work conditions, and unstable hours that fail to provide workers with sufficient security or livelihood.
In fact, it was a recent labour issue that made McDonald’s the most prominent company in our analysis:
A recent BBC investigation into McDonald’s uncovered claims of sexual harassment, racism and bullying in its UK outlets. Despite the company’s public apology and declaration to investigate, the news caused a storm across major publications.
As a company that has a significant customer base of young people, the news could hit McDonald’s hard – on top of the huge reputational damage, with the current labour shortage (job vacancies in the hospitality sector hit 146,000 between November 2022 and January 2023), the impact on the perception of McDonald’s as an employer brand will be significant.
A number of publications reporting on this scandal also mentioned that UK food delivery staff serving KFC, Burger King and Pizza Hut recently voted to strike over pay.
This heightened scrutiny reflects a growing societal demand for corporate accountability and ethical treatment of employees, signalling to the industry that practices once relegated to the background are now at the forefront of consumer consciousness and brand reputation. It also highlights the critical importance of not only managing external communications but also cultivating internal cultural change, which would naturally lead to more authentic and effective external messaging.
2. Environmental impact
The far-reaching plastic ban that took effect in the UK on October 1 has propelled the environmental impact of the fast food industry into the epicentre of the media discourse. UK Environment Secretary Thérèse Coffey, who announced the ban, emerged as the most influential spokesperson in the debate:
The UK government’s prohibition of single-use plastic items, including cutlery, plates, and polystyrene containers, marks a new era of enforced environmental responsibility. These stringent measures transition environmental stewardship from a mere recommendation to a legal obligation. However, this regulatory landscape poses a significant communications challenge for brands: sustainability initiatives risk being perceived as mere reactions to government mandates rather than as genuine, proactive commitments. In an age where authenticity is paramount, companies must navigate this delicate balance, ensuring their environmental efforts are seen as inherent values rather than reluctant compliance.
Recognising this paradigm shift, some pioneering fast food brands are taking proactive steps to bolster their environmental credentials. KFC, for instance, secured favourable media attention by making strides towards achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, exemplified by its new sustainable packaging policy. Similarly, Burger King‘s initiative to remove plastic toys from kids’ meals in 500 UK restaurants, coupled with its innovative ‘The Meltdown’ campaign, showcased a creative approach to sustainability.
3. Mental health
In the UK media, fast food is increasingly being linked to cognitive decline, depression, and even dementia. Many publications focused on a growing body of evidence suggesting a connection between fast food—specifically the consumption of ultra-processed foods (UPFs) —and mental health. In September, many UK outlets reported on the first large study to suggest that consuming UPFs could increase the instances of depression, while many journalists noted that Britain’s notorious fast food consumption is fuelling the nation’s mental health crisis.
In response to this evolving narrative, fast food PR and communications teams need to pivot strategically. It’s no longer sufficient to address only the physical health impacts of their products; mental health must now be part of the conversation. Fast food brands should invest in research and collaborate with nutrition experts to reformulate their offerings, emphasising brain-healthy nutrients and reducing additives and preservatives. Moreover, they should bolster their communication efforts to educate consumers on the potential mental health impacts of their dietary choices, promoting balanced and nutritious alternatives.
Major fast food chains like McDonald’s, Burger King, and KFC have yet to proactively integrate this aspect into their communications strategies. This oversight presents a significant opportunity; the early adopters that authentically incorporate mental health awareness and initiatives into their branding and messaging could not only differentiate themselves in a crowded market but also establish a competitive advantage by resonating with an increasingly health-conscious consumer base.
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