I read recently that McDonald’s is reintroducing its McRib sandwich for a limited time. Memories immediately flooded me, not necessarily of the boneless pork sandwich drenched in barbecue sauce, but of the six years I spent right out of college toiling for Bay Area McDonald’s franchisees publicizing their products and corporate good works.
I had graduated from UC Berkeley in June of 1981 full of hope and no job prospects. Armed with my superior education, (a Bachelor of Arts degree in history), I felt certain that the business world would vie for my services. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The United States was consumed by a severe recession that had begun just a month after I graduated and continued unabated until the end of 1982. I didn’t understand the meaning of a recession, only that I couldn’t get a job.
At Christmas, my sister Cathy visited me and my parents (with whom I had resumed living) from the Midwest where she resided. We went for a run during which I practically hyperventilated about my sorry lot in life. She asked me what I wanted to do and I replied “public relations,” because it had sounded glamorous and appealing when I was researching my career options.
Cathy advised me to hand-carry my resume to PR firms around town and offer to do entry level work. I swallowed my pride and within a week I had a job. Within a month I had moved out of my parents’ house.
I worked as a secretary for a public relations agency known as Lowry & Partners. The firm had several high-profile accounts including the Bay Area McDonald’s franchisees. Within three months, one of the account executives had moved on and her job became mine. I had finally made it.
I remember my first assignment. I booked Ronald McDonald, the corporate clown mascot, at a birthday party where he had been requested, and finalized all the details in writing, crossing my “t’s” and dotting my “i’s.”
Then I received a wake-up call from the clown, which shattered me. As I recall, Ronald McDonald scolded me for my failure to book him in a high profile appearance, thereby rendering him “cheap.” I had mistakenly arranged for Ronald to appear at birthday party off site from a McDonald’s restaurant, which was against all rules. Birthday parties, unless they celebrated famous people, had to take place at McDonald’s.
First, I felt stunned that Ronald McDonald could act so mean. Then I cried as I realized the error of my ways and the futility of my life. After I hung up the phone, the jaded and more experienced PR pros with whom I worked howled with laughter. Watching me get chewed out by a clown and take it seriously pretty much made their day. My bosses’ response served to ease my pain, but I scrupulously paid attention to the McDonald’s account rules (and there were thousands of them) from that point forward.
Within a year, one of the partners at Lowry & Partners left to start her own public relations agency and tried to take me and the McDonald’s account (not necessarily in that order) with her.
I was only 22-years-old, but I had come to know the McDonald’s account inside out. It had its own special culture filled with acronyms and idiosyncrasies. I had demonstrated a fondness for minutiae and an ability to get along with a wide variety of people and personalities, which made me the ideal candidate for the job at hand. Ronald and I had also resolved our initial misunderstanding and I had earned his respect with my dedication and sensitivity to his myriad needs.
I remained with the partners who hired me and helped them retain McDonald’s. I worked there for six more years and have a lifetime of stories and experiences that still make me laugh. I never quite developed “ketchup in my veins,” which was the expression the McDonald’s corporate honchos used to assess one’s loyalty to the Golden Arches.
I faked it for an awfully long time though and feel grateful for everything I learned at the oversized feet of the clown.