Applebee’s PR Disaster, where did they go wrong?

This is the picture that started it all off. If you’re a regular internet user, chances are you’ve seen it already. At an Applebee’s restaurant (an American chain) in St. Louis, a pastor, upset by the automatic 18% gratuity wrote:

I give God 10% why do you get 18

The waitress who served the table showed the receipt to a fellow waitress, Chelsea Welch. Welch posted the receipt to the popular website, Reddit. And Welch got fired.

I’m not going to go into whether or not Welch should have got fired, Applebee’s said that there was a clause in her contract about customer privacy, and I’m no employment lawyer. What I am interested in is Applebee’s ‘Social Media Meltdown’ – everything that could have gone wrong, went wrong.

Mistake 1: They contradicted themselves
Despite saying they had fired Welch because she had posted an image with the customer’s name clearly visible, Applebee’s had done the same thing themselves on Facebook a few days before the scandal had erupted. The difference being, this review was positive. They deleted the picture, but as we know, you can never truly delete anything from the internet, the screenshots had been captured and Facebook users began to complain.

Applebee’s posted a status that said:
“We wish this situation didn’t happen…Our franchisee has apologized to the Guest and has taken disciplinary action with the Team Member for violating their Guest’s right to privacy.”

Mistake 2: They went on the defensive… In all the wrong ways
Thousands of people were commenting on Applebee’s status at this point, complaining about Applebee’s double standards. The status was posted at 3pm; it had around 17,000 comments by 3am when Applebee’s started replying to comments IN the status. Their page manager was online, in the middle of the night, replying to individuals! Not just small comments either, but lengthy messages that would constitute a full blown media release. Even the people commenting on the status seemed surprised, pointing out that Applebee’s needed to post a whole new status with that information or no one would be able to see it (amongst the 17,000+ other comments).

They then started replying to individuals, by copying and pasting the same comment over and over again, but with different people’s names tagged in it. That’s a sure fire why to irritate people. Worse still, they start arguing with individuals, bearing in mind this is still around 3am. The Page Manager should REALLY have taken a step back and thought about the consequences at this point (well before this point actually!)

Mistake 3: Censorship and Denial
Of course it’s uncomfortable when people are criticising you and your organisation, but deleting comments on a Facebook page is the equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears and going “la la la” in a face-to-face situation. If someone is writing something that can be considered offensive or breaks Facebook’s spam rules, you have every right to delete their comments or block the user. However blocking people just because they don’t agree with you is bad form, and it appears the Applebee’s social media manager sat up all night doing exactly that.

Overnight, Applebee’s apparently realised the error of their ways and posts one single update with the information they had been repeating all night. But they then deleted their controversial status update from the night before, at this point with 20,000+ comments. This prompts another wave of anger, to which Applebee’s responds by denying that any posts had been deleted. Interesting tactic, given everyone could see the status no longer existed and all the screenshots that had been taken! The company spent much of the next day arguing with individuals as well.

As you can see by the screenshots below, Applebee’s failing PR strategy was pretty evident to everyone:

So the lesson here is: censor the internet at your peril! If people want to criticise your brand, chances are, they will. If you try censor them on social media, they’ll find another way. The fact that we’re aware of this PR blunder in little ol’ New Zealand shows how out of control the issue got.

For me, the late night arguing, the censorship, and the denials were the heart of the PR meltdown. As with anything, the page manager should have really slept on it, had a discussion with their marketing team, and come back to it the next day with a fresh head and a clear, strategic approach to dealing with the criticism. I would love to hear your thoughts on where you think Applebee’s went wrong – sound off in the comments below.