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A key figure in a leading animal rights charity has spoken out about being a ‘shill’ for fast food giant McDonald’s.
Ben Williamson, Senior International Media Director of PETA, says he now uses everything he learnt about PR to fight for animal advocacy.
‘Used for PR gain’
At the tender age of seven, Williamson and his classmates attended the opening of the first McDonald’s in Hampstead – a wealthy part of north London.
Writing for Quartz, Williamson said: “It was 1993, and as part of the corporation’s big public-relations push, the president of its UK operation was on hand with a phalanx of newspaper reporters and television crews in tow.
“For a group of impressionable schoolchildren, it was heady stuff.”
Williamson believes getting children involved in the store’s opening was an ‘attempt to woo their overworked mothers’.
He adds: “Several months prior to the opening, a competition was held among the local schools, mine included. Our assignment was to write 12 words explaining why we liked the fast-food chain, beginning with, ‘I like McDonald’s because….’
“Can you guess who won?
“Apparently my entry – ‘I like McDonald’s because there’s a wide variety of food and my pal Ronald thinks so, too’ – was so impressive that the judges were OK with it being too long.
After cutting the ribbon at the fast food outlet’s opening ceremony, pr staff gave Williamson – who was pescatarian at the time – a Filet-O-Fish sandwich.
The whole thing was captured on camera.
It was 17 years later, when he was studying ethics at college, that Williamson decided to go vegan after learning that ‘because animals have the capacity to suffer, they are entitled to the same fundamental rights that are afforded all sentient beings’.
He says: “That’s when it dawned on me that it’s never too late to throw off the shackles of our consumerist habits – it’s never too late to become a better version of yourself.
“I decided that going vegan was something easy that I could do that would be enormously beneficial to my health, the planet, and, most importantly, the animals. I’ve now been entirely meat-free for eight years.”
He joined PETA soon after. A couple of years later a reporter called, asking if he was the same Ben Williamson who who’d cut the ribbon at the opening ceremony of the Hampstead McDonald’s years ago.
Williamson says: “Did I know, he asked, that it was about to close and become an artisanal French bakery? (I didn’t, but I wasn’t sorry to see it go.)”
According to the media pro: “Businesses – and by extension, their PR departments – have to remain flexible and be prepared to change with the times. And many have.”
He lists Tyson Foods investing in Beyond Meat, and dairy giant Danone investing in plant milk among others as examples of businesses who are diversifying.
He adds: “Even McDonald’s seems to be catching on. In October, it started testing the McVegan, a soy-patty sandwich, at a handful of restaurants in Finland, and the feedback so far has been positive.”
Williamson concludes: “We are constantly forming and reforming our ideas, which means that at any point, we can become someone completely different – someone better than who we once were.
“If one consumer could break his shackles, do a 180-degree turn before the age of 30, and go from being a McDonald’s poster child to PETA’s senior international media director, other consumers can adapt, too.”