The following is Kruse Company president Nancy Kruse’s response to NRN senior food editor Bret Thorn’s take on online petitioners.

You ask a good question, Bret. Whether these digital gadflies are a boon or a bane to restaurant marketers, they're not going away. Emboldened by the ease of making their voices heard and empowered by the responses they provoke, their numbers will continue to grow. And because of the fundamental importance of the food industry in general and restaurants in particular, we will remain right in their crosshairs.

No foodservice operator is a bigger target than McDonald's, of course. Its ubiquity on street corners and television screens everywhere constitutes a big, juicy bull's eye. I totally share your exasperation with many of its critics — the ones who seem especially intent on scoring points, grinding axes and grabbing attention. The jeopardy, it seems to me, is that legitimate criticism may be overlooked and worthwhile concerns unaddressed because they're drowned out by the relentlessly increasing noise level.

It's clear that the success of many self-styled, modern muckrakers has encouraged legions of others. A couple of years ago, Bettina Siegel, a prominent mommy blogger in Houston, used an online petition to force the USDA to stop using lean, finely textured beef (LFTB) in school lunches. Unfortunately dubbed "pink slime," the substance is perfectly safe for consumption, but her efforts led to a media firestorm and the disappearance of the product from lunch trays and even some quick-service chains.

In an editorial, The New York Times called the episode unfair, noting that the only people hurt by LFTB were the 650 workers who lost their jobs when its major supplier was forced to shut down. There's a direct line from Ms. Siegel's activities to Ms. Freston's. 

These are heady days, as the power of the Internet has turned regular folks into critics and, unfortunately, encouraged bad behavior in many quarters. You and I have commented on and commiserated about this numerous times in the past, when we've looked at customers who demand special treatment in return for a good online review or chefs who take to Twitter to shame their no-shows or otherwise sass their customers.

So, Bret, what should operators do in the face of rising digital activism? One approach is to follow McDonald's lead. The object of unceasing pressure, the corporation has consistently responded in measured tones by pointing out that it is in the business of pleasing its patrons — the ones who make their feelings known with their wallets, not the number of followers they've amassed. 

Contact Bret Thorn at bret.thorn@penton.com
Follow him on Twitter: @foodwriterdiary

Nancy Kruse, president of the Kruse Company, is a menu trends analyst based in Atlanta and a regular contributor to Nation’s Restaurant News. E-mail her at nancykruse@aol.com.