For American tourists who find themselves in a bind in Austria and don't know the German words for police ("polizei"), "help!" ("hilfe!") or the European equivalent of 911 (112), any McDonald's will do.
Under a new partnership announced by the US Embassy in Vienna, beginning Wednesday, US citizens need only locate the golden arches of the fast-food chain restaurant to seek help to contact a consular office.
Lost your passport or cellphone abroad? Just stroll through the doors of one of any of the 194 McDonald's in Austria, and staff members will provide a 24/7 hotline number for the US Embassy and a phone to call there if needed, according to the partnership announced on Facebook last week.
A spokesman for McDonald's Austria, Wilhelm Baldia, said Thursday that he was not aware of any other country with such an arrangement.
In the Facebook post, the US ambassador to Austria, Trevor D. Traina, a former technology entrepreneur who founded and sold startups to companies including Microsoft, is shown smiling and shaking hands with Isabelle Kuster, the managing director of McDonald's Austria, after signing a "memorandum of agreement." A branded coffee cup is placed strategically on the table.
Baldia said the company was not being paid for the new service.
The US government did not provide any particular reason for choosing McDonald's or Austria, but Baldia said the embassy had approached the chain with the idea. In an email Thursday, a State Department official wrote, "We work from time to time with private-sector entities and other non government around the world as part of our commitment to assisting US citizens in need overseas."
While the arrangement may raise eyebrows, especially among fast-food rivals like Burger King (which has more than 40 outlets in Austria), Rupert Younger, director of the Oxford University Center for Corporate Reputation, said Thursday: "It is a smart move for McDonald's. The company's engagement and interaction with US citizens abroad is very significant, making them an ideal partner for consular outreach and assistance."
He added, "Becoming a trusted place to go when you have a personal crisis adds a new dimension to the focus on customer needs."
The image of the fast-food chain had been tarnished by evidence of a link between the kind of food it served and the obesity crisis, and it had been working to clean up its reputation around the globe.
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The tide has turned somewhat as the chain has added more healthful options, and revenues have rebounded partly because of its all-day breakfast menus, analysts say.
Forging good community relations has also played a part in McDonald's turnaround. In 2017, a McDonald's restaurant in Italy worked with archaeologists to uncover an ancient ruin underneath its building, allowing visitors to walk along a 44 metre stretch of a Roman road.
And in September last year, workers at a McDonald's in Marseille, France, won a court battle to keep the franchise open, saying it had played a vital role as a social integrator in a troubled neighbourhood.
By Thursday afternoon, the Facebook post about the new Austrian deal had drawn more than 1,000 reactions, comments and shares.
"Can you help me find the Mc Embassy?" one user wrote. Another commented, "Introducing the McVisa!" Still another said, "Can you open a Burger King embassy so we can have it our way?" And some Austrians asked if this would be a bilateral agreement so that they could seek help at McDonald's in the United States.
Others had more serious concerns, with one person writing: "As a US citizen, I find it odd that this seems to be an endorsement for a specific corporation. I would prefer if the government and corporations were kept separate."
But Baldia, the spokesman for McDonald's Austria, said fears that the United States' consular services were being commercialised were unfounded. "We will not be a miniembassy," he said. "We will not take on any tasks of the embassy or any embassy services."
Baldia said those seeking help do not have to purchase something from the restaurant — "but if they want to buy something, they can, of course."
Written by: Anna Schaverien
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