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Hiring ex-Obama spokesman, McDonald's promises 'progressive' turn

Hiring former Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs, McDonald's said it wants to build a "progressive" company. But there's no sign that means higher wages for workers.

When McDonald’s announced Tuesday that it had hired Robert Gibbs, a former top aide to President Barack Obama, as its head of communications, it framed the move as part of a broader shift. CEO Steve Easterbrook said in a statement that the hiring of Gibbs and Silvia Lagnado, who created Dove’s much-praised Campaign for Real Beauty, would help the Golden Arches “build a more modern, progressive burger company.”

But with the burger giant facing increasingly high-profile calls for higher pay from its own low-wage employees, just how far the company intends to follow through on that rhetoric remains unclear at best.

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“Being a more modern and progressive company begins with serving great tasting, real and fresh food enabled by exceptional service, easy-to-use technology and a welcoming restaurant environment that elevates the entire experience at McDonald’s,” Becca Hary, the company’s director of global media relations, told msnbc via email. “Adding talent and outside perspectives from Robert Gibbs and Silvia Lagnado are important pieces in bringing our strategies to life.”

Gibbs did not respond to msnbc's request for comment.

Asked what the progressive strategy means with respect to calls for higher wages, Hary pointed to the company’s announcement in April that it would raise pay by $1 per hour for workers in company-owned, rather than franchise, stores. That covers only about 10% of all McDonald’s workers in the country, since the vast majority are employed by franchise stores. Activists with the low-wage movement have rejected the move, describing it as as window dressing.

Last month, around 2,000 protesters gathered at McDonald’s annual shareholder meeting outside Chicago to continue to press their demands, and to criticize McDonald’s plan to spend around $20 billion on share buybacks for stockholders, rather than investing in workers.

Terrance Wise, a McDonald’s cook from Kansas City, Missouri, who attended the event, said that while he’s worked there for 11 years, he still makes only $8 an hour. As a result, he’s had to take a second job at Burger King to help support his three daughters. He now works from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily.

McDonald’s is facing challenges beyond the calls for higher pay. Declining sales last year led Easterbrook to announce a turnaround plan in May, which focused on “high-growth” markets like China and Russia, and a move to sell more company-owned restaurants to franchisees in order to cut costs.

Gibbs served as White House press secretary from 2009 to 2011 and, after that, as an outside adviser to the administration. In 2013, he founded a PR firm, The Incite Agency. Gibbs had been an msnbc contributor since 2013. He has ended his relationship with the network as a result of his new role at McDonald's.

Since leaving the White House, Gibbs has said relatively little publicly about issues of inequality and low wages, even though he has in the past appeared frequently on msnbc and NBC News.

RELATED: Industry groups wage PR battle to defend low wages

Responding to positive jobs news in February 2014 on "Morning Joe," he said: “[E]ven as we're adding jobs, people don't feel like their lives are getting better because their wages haven't gone up, and they haven't gone up for a while. They're just keeping pace with inflation, which, even as you see articles that say things are getting better, people don't necessarily feel it because of their wages.”

As press secretary, Gibbs incurred the wrath of many liberals when he blasted “the professional left,” saying “they will be satisfied when we have Canadian healthcare and we’ve eliminated the Pentagon. That’s not reality.”