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We interview Dionne Parker, former VP of International Corporate Relations, McDonald’s

Posted: Feb 2024
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Dionne Parker is a seasoned corporate affairs leader known for her impactful roles at leading brands Costa Coffee, Findus Group, Cadbury and 12 years in senior roles at McDonald’s. From starting out as a junior in a travel PR agency to steering global campaigns for the world’s most famous food service brand, Dionne shares her insights and advice for communications professionals aspiring to work with top brands. Dionne tells us about her leadership philosophy, the importance of kindness in managing people, and reveals a hidden talent from her breakdance crew days!

1. Can you give us a brief overview of your career so far?

It began with a chance conversation in my local pub with a couple who had a travel PR agency - I asked if they would talk to me about what they did, and a week later they offered me a role as their junior! I spent 14 years agency side, specialising in travel and leisure, including lead counsel for the Foreign Office’s consumer campaigns, supporting the Federation of Tour Operators during the 2004 tsunami, and heading up from a dot-com start-up to the agency’s largest account.

The majority of my career has been in-house leading corporate affairs teams for well-known food retail brands including Costa, Findus Group and Cadbury where I was part of the Comms defence team during Kraft’s hostile bid. I had an incredible 12 years at McDonald’s, eight of those were leading the UK&I Communications team, and most recently I was Vice President International Corporate Relations where, as part of the Global Impact Leadership Team, I was responsible for the creation and activation of McDonald’s Impact strategy across 100+ markets.

2. You have held senior communication roles at some of the world's best-known consumer brands including Costa Coffee, Cadbury and latterly McDonald's. What advice would you give to comms professionals aspiring to work at such renowned organisations?

Be deliberate: we spend a lot of time at work, and it can be challenging, so having a passion for an industry or connection to a brand is important. And be determined - I created a wish-list of dream roles, and made sure recruiters, colleagues and friends knew about it (Cadbury and McDonald’s were on that list)!

All the Cs: I read somewhere that a great communicator is collaborative, courageous, creative and connected, and I would wholeheartedly agree. I would add curiosity to that list (I love a bit of alliteration)! Curiosity and a willingness to learn no matter what level you are. I hugely benefited from starting in two smaller, specialist agencies - a roll-up your sleeves and get stuck in kind of environment. In my first agency, with just the three of us, the ability to shadow my bosses and learn from them - the good and the bad - was so valuable. I’m still learning … and have just completed the Cambridge Institute of Sustainability Leadership (CISL) course in business sustainability management which I would highly recommend.

In this hybrid world of working, shadowing might not be as easy. An alternative approach would be to find a mentor; it’s a great way to connect, learn and be inspired; I still have mentors who I turn to 20+ years later!

3. You spent over 12 years at McDonald’s, most recently as VP International Corporate Relations. You created and drove McDonald’s Impact campaign over 100 markets. How do you control the delivery of such an enormous campaign in each market?

It’s not easy! A lot is about leadership style - so rather than command and control, I like to foster a culture of trust so that teams feel a sense of belonging and empowered. When I took the global role, the fact that I had led the UK&I team - one of the largest markets outside of the US - gave me gravitas as market teams knew I had walked in their shoes.

My teams have heard me talk about my role as the conscience of the business and champion of the brand. As the conscience it wasn’t about policing the market teams, it was about asking the tough questions, being thought-provoking and proactive. As brand champion it was about celebrating their campaigns, sharing best practice and where we could, scaling across markets for even greater impact.

4. McDonald’s is a household brand, constantly in the news; what it was like to work there and what was your most memorable moment?

Life at McDonald’s was never dull, and no two days were the same; it’s a marmite brand - people love it or hate it, and everyone has something to say about it! So, it can be a challenging place to work, and I think I faced every conceivable issue during my time … thankfully I like a challenge!

I’ve had some money can’t buy moments especially around sport - from spending every day at the Park during London 2012, going to numerous football World Cups, being part of the presentation line at the Community Shield when my team won, and meeting the Class of 92 (well nearly all of them - Beckham was missing)!

I have also had the privilege of travelling around the world with McDonald’s and will be forever grateful for those moments, but my standout memory isn’t quite so glamorous! It was my first event with my then CEO, Jill McDonald - a keynote speech at the IOD on the snobbery that surrounds working at McDonald’s. Her comments led to front page news and an afternoon in the O2 basement doing various media interviews. It was the first time I fully understood the impact of the McDonald’s brand, and the importance of being proud and bold with our Communications approach.

5. What would you say are your three key attributes that have contributed to your career success?

I’m a connector (another C)! I can join the dots quickly from issue to options and actions. Over the years, I’ve learnt that it’s just as important to slow down, seek different points of view and ask the right questions to bring others with me.

I am at my best as a valued thought partner. I see leaders at the top of their game and at their most vulnerable, so mutual trust and respect are important so that everyone can be themselves. It also makes difficult or challenging conversations that little bit easier.

I don’t have to have all the answers; it took me a while to lean into that one as I’m naturally solution- orientated and a perfectionist - that combination can be a strength and a weakness, and I sometimes have to remind myself that it’s ok to say I don’t know!

6. What is the most important lesson you have learned when managing people?

My mum always says it’s important to be kind and to treat others as you would want to be treated, a sentiment also echoed by my old McDonald’s boss, Paul Pomroy. I try to lead by example and create space for the team to shine - it’s about getting the right balance between support in key decision moments and creating opportunities.

7. Can you share the best piece of professional advice you’ve been given along the way, and by whom?

I can’t remember who said this to me but the phrase was “you have two ears and one mouth, think about that.” Be a good listener but know when and how to make a point!

8. What or who inspires you, and why?

Its rather sentimental but it’s my parents: they both had to work from a young age, and that work ethic and can-do attitude has always inspired me. Plus they’re my biggest cheerleaders even though 30+ years later, they still don’t really understand what I do!

9. If you hadn’t ended up working in communications, what was your plan B?

A school career counsellor told me that I would make a good air stewardess (based on my like of travel, geography and languages)! Working for a travel PR specialist was as close to that career path as I came! I worked in a record shop for a while and was into the rave scene (it was 1989) so I considered the music industry - maybe working for a label! Instead it was my sister who carved out the music career, travelling the world as a DJ and producer!

10. Do you have any hidden talents?

When I was young, I was in a little breakdance crew, but an operation on my neck (not related) and age have meant those moves are long gone!

Thanks, Dionne!

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