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February 7, 2013

Fresh and Sizzling at Applebee’s: Social Media Reputation Management

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Applebee’s is serving up a lesson in social media reputation management and crisis communications this week. There are multiple layers worth exploring in this story.

There’s the Reddit community whose mob mentality infected this story as it traveled across social media channels.

There’s also the social media marketing industry that has raised its voice against how Applebee’s handled the situation.

Herein I attempt to look at both because, of course, they’re overlapping and related.  Yet because this story is deeply layered and complex, I merely skim the surface. Still, I think it’s enough to add a few things to your business’s guidelines for online discourse if and when your brand ever comes under fire.

To recap what happened with Applebee’s:

  • An Applebee’s customer, Alois Bell, rejected the automatic 18% tip for a large party, opting instead to leave a snarky comment with a religious allusion. Update: In an interview with Alois after the controversy broke, she says her group left the 18% tip in cash on the table.
  • An Applebee’s employee named Chelsea Welch – not the server of this delightful customer – posted the customer’s note to Reddit’s atheist section.
  • Reddit had a grand time making fun of the customer and her religious affiliations. Welch was fired by Applebee’s for breaking rules regarding customer privacy.
  • Applebee’s issued an apology for the incident on Facebook. Across social media networks, outrage rang out over Welch’s firing.
  • Applebee’s defended their position in a middle-of-the-night Facebook posting and tens of thousands of comments accumulated. Nearly all comments are negative, and many point to a failure in using Facebook and social media for public relations and customer communications.
applebees.com home page

Mentions of Applebee’s on Twitter focus on the customer tipping scandal that rocked the company’s social media profile this week. Don’t tell Chelsea Welch they’re hiring because they let her go after she posted customer info on Reddit.

The Arguments Against Applebee’s

I think Applebee’s is being crucified for reasons beyond the incident that went down in a St. Louis restaurant on January 25.

To start, it’s my feeling that Reddit can get pretty uppity. Any action taken against Welch would have been met with righteous indignation regardless of Applebee’s reasoning. The social media community had elevated itself to a mob and would have attacked any argument — and this attack mentality spread to Facebook and Twitter. At this point it was Applebee’s against the haters across the Web.

These haters looked to any opportunity to call foul on Applebee’s. When the company explained Welch’s firing as the result of her violation of the customer’s privacy, this is how the debate that went down:

Applebee’s: “We don’t post customer’s personal information.”

Angry hoard points to a January 12th Applebee’s Facebook posting of a photograph of customer praise with the customer’s name included: “Look, look! You did so post a customer’s personal info!”

What Applebee’s should have said next: “Let us rephrase. We don’t publish customer’s personal information to tar and feather them in the public eye.”

Based on the facts we have, Applebee’s acted well within appropriate boundaries in letting the employee go and in its initial explanations and apologies about the situation on Facebook.

Some social media marketing industry insiders have argued otherwise, pointing to these actions as a lack of planned crisis communications strategy:

  • Posting in the middle of the night
  • Needlessly repetitive copy-and-paste responses
  • Replying to critics as responses rather than definitive status updates

These are all judgment calls in my mind, with no clear right or wrong without the aid of hindsight.

Of course, regardless of what Applebee’s was being persecuted for, the fact is that they were under attack in social media. So…

Could This Have Been Avoided?

If Applebee’s had a social media crisis response plan, could this nightmare have been avoided? It just so happens that two years ago, Jessica interviewed Applebee’s then-social media director Scott Gulbransen about the company’s social media policy.

When he talked to BCI in 2010, he explained the current state of Applebee’s social media strategy as “evolving” with “a ways to go.” What he described was a corporate social communications department that was trusted by company leadership to interact and engage online.

He explained, “We’re in the process of getting more folks in cross-functional roles trained to respond and participate appropriately in social channels with our guests and employees out the in field.” In that level of development, after a year with Applebee’s odds are good he established crisis response guidelines, or at least equipped his predecessors with the needed ideas and background to act appropriately in a critical situation.

He called the company’s voice “real, authentic and transparent,” and as comfortable making jokes as “pointed remarks.” To that point he said, “[W]hen people Tweet at us or post on our Facebook page comments or content that is pushing the limits, we don’t mind calling them on it.” If a brand isn’t “real” in social media, they aren’t worth listening to. If a brand is stiff and always agreeable, people have no reasons to connect.

The Cost of Being Real

So when I hear people arguing that in this instance Applebee’s demonstrated failure in a high-pressure social media situation, I’m wondering if what they expected Applebee’s do is roll over and take a flogging. That’s not a brand I can relate to. Applebee’s established its corporate voice as one who calls out people who push the limits, and as both a social media marketing professional and a social media user, I respect that.

Now add to that, with the facts we have, I don’t think Applebee’s acted out of turn in terminating employment of a staff member who posted a customer’s personal information for the purpose of mocking on the Internet, and you can see how I find Applebee’s in the right on this one.

Was their room for improvement? Sure. Lessons I’ve taken from this are to create a plan of defense before saying anything. It could cover how to respond to individual comments, or if that should be done at all. And a pre-planned blueprint would probably rule out posting at 3 am, an unsacred hour when late-night trolls are just waiting for something to dig their teeth into.

Other than that, Applebee’s should keep calm and carry on. Although tens of thousands of people hated on Applebee’s online this week, how many of them do you think are Applebee’s diners who will now boycott their normal happy hour spot? …See you tomorrow, Applebee’s.

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2 responses to “Fresh and Sizzling at Applebee’s: Social Media Reputation Management”

  1. meleighsmith writes:

    Two things I especially liked in this article: the point that if Applebee’s had simply rolled over and taken a beating, they become a company you can’t relate to – I completely agree. Also, your take on how they should have responded when they were called out on publishing people’s personal information – love it! It’s so important to think through any response when representing your company online, don’t post without thought or from an emotional place. Take a breath, think about what you’re posting, and get input from team members if you need to. Thanks for another great read :)

  2. Virginia Nussey writes:

    Melissa :D You and me are on the saaame page!



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