Blogosphere awaits corporate response to Canadian’s claim of assault
University of Toronto professor Steve Mann has been described as “the father of wearable computing,” but even his high-tech eyewear wasn’t enough to help him foresee the online furor that would be caused by a recent blog post entitled “Physical assault by McDonald’s for wearing digital eye glass.”
In the latest example of the immense power of social media, Mann’s account of being assaulted by what appear to be employees at a Paris McDonald’s, apparently over a pair of digital glasses, has quickly spread online.
Mann, a professor at U of T’s department of electrical and computer engineering, has worn what he describes as a computer vision device for 34 years. Known as the EyeTap, the latest iteration is a computer-controlled laser light source that, in Mann’s words, “causes the eye to function as it were both a camera and a display.” The device, which sits over one eye, is attached to his head with a metal band and can only be removed with special tools.
Mann didn’t respond to interview requests from Marketing, but a full account of the bizarre incident appears on his blog. In short, he claims that three men who appeared to be employees at a McDonald’s restaurant on the Champs Eysees tried to rip the futuristic eyewear from his head before shoving him out of the restaurant, where he was dining with his family.
While Mann’s current silence in the mainstream media leaves several questions unanswered, McDonald’s is being forced to defend itself as the story spreads online.
Within hours of the post’s appearance, the fast food giant was being attacked on its Facebook page and via Twitter. The influential tech blog Tech Crunch called for a boycott until Mann has been compensated for damages. Other accounts of the story have appeared on Forbes.com (bearing the headline “Cyborg discrimination?”) and Mashable.com.
Mann said in his online post that when the EyeTap device is damaged, buffered pictures for processing remain in its memory and are not overwritten. This is what enabled it to capture images of his alleged attackers, which Mann posted to the blog albeit with their faces and names obscured.
In his post, Mann said that he has tried to contact McDonald’s by e-mail and its 1-800 number but received no response.
Contacted by Marketing, Steve Mazeika, supervisor of global external communications for McDonald’s in Oak Brook, Illinois, said via e-mail that the company is currently “gathering information” about the incident.
“We are in the process of gathering information about this situation and we ask for patience until all of the facts are known.” The company also issued the same response via Twitter.
Alan Middleton, assistant professor of marketing at the Schulich School of Business, said that while this one incident is unlikely to tarnish McDonald’s reputation, a collection of such events could cause some long-term damage to the brand.
“If gradually more and more little actions like this come into people’s consciousness, instead of being the friendly place where I take my kids, it becomes the big, nasty corporation,” he said.
The company’s PR response, said Middleton, should be to first assess whether this is an isolated incident of bad publicity that will go away if it is simply ignored. If the company determines it had good reason for its actions (the security of other patrons, for example) it could be perceived as an appropriate response, said Middleton.
“You’ve got to make sure that it’s real, because what’s immediately going to happen is the media’s going to be all over that story to find out what’s really going on,” said Middleton. “You can’t mess it up.”
If the incident was an arbitrary response by a local McDonald’s manager, said Middleton, the best response is simply to issue a hasty apology.
McDonald’s has also been accused to removing links to Mann’s blog from its Facebook page, which Middleton said is entirely the wrong response. “If you’re going to engage in social media, you’ve got to take the bad with the good,” he said. “The Facebook page [response] should have been to leave it there but very quickly tell the other side of the story, or apologize.”
UPDATE: July 18, 12:43 p.m.
Steve Mazeika has sent this longer statement to Marketing in response to Steve Mann’s claims.
“We share the concern regarding Dr. Mann’s account of his July 1 visit to a McDonald’s in Paris. McDonald’s France was made aware of Dr. Mann’s complaints on July 16, and immediately launched a thorough investigation. The McDonald’s France team has contacted Dr. Mann and is awaiting further information from him.
In addition, several staff members involved have been interviewed individually, and all independently and consistently expressed that their interaction with Dr. Mann was polite and did not involve a physical altercation. Our crew members and restaurant security staff have informed us that they did not damage any of Mr. Mann’s personal possessions.
While we continue to learn more about the situation, we are hearing from customers who have questions about what happened. We urge everyone not to speculate or jump to conclusions before all the facts are known. Our goal is to provide a welcoming environment and stellar service to McDonald’s customers around the world.”