6 steps Applebee’s should have taken to manage its PR crisis

The restaurant has taken many PR missteps since a server posted a customer’s receipt online. Here’s how it could have avoided them.

One would think that in 2013 anyone who does social media professionally has the social Web figured out, particularly when one works for a big brand that has hundreds of thousands of customers who know how to use Facebook and Twitter.

But I guess we know what happens when one assumes.

Let’s take Applebee’s as case in point. The Mercury News sums up the situation quite nicely:

“A waitress at a St. Louis Applebee’s lost her job for posting online the receipt upon which a pastor had declined to leave a tip, with a snarky note saying she gave God 10 percent.

“After her dinner on Jan. 25, Pastor Alois Bell crossed out the automatic 18 percent tip charged for parties of more than eight. “I give God 10% why do you get 18,” she wrote above her signature.

“Employee Chelsea Welch—a colleague of the stiffed server—took a picture of the receipt and uploaded it to the online site Reddit. She subsequently lost her job, an Applebee’s spokesman confirmed to TheSmokingGun.com, for violating a customer’s privacy.”

So, the friend of the stiffed waitress was fired for posting a copy of the receipt on Reddit. And it’s pretty crappy when someone won’t leave a tip (though the pastor claims she left cash, it has not been confirmed), especially for a large party and because she disagrees with the percentage, not because the service was horrendous.

But that’s not the story. The story isn’t even the rage people felt as they took to the Web to demand the waitress get her job back, creating “Rehire Chelsea Welch” groups on Facebook.

The real story

The story—the marvelous train wreck of a story—is how Applebee’s responded.

Around 3 p.m. on Friday, Applebee’s posted this on its Facebook page:

I don’t disagree that Applebee’s should have fired the waitress. If it’s against Applebee’s policy and violates the guest’s right to privacy, so be it. That’s a fireable offense.

But then, this (captured by IfYouCantAffordtoTip) is also a fireable offense, as it violates the guest’s right to privacy because it shows his name at the bottom:

Around midnight on Friday, the issue really began to take steam and people began commenting back about the hypocrisy and double standard.

Mismanagement of the Facebook page

But here’s where it gets good: At 3 a.m. (yes, in the middle of the night), whoever controls the Applebee’s Facebook and Twitter streams began commenting to people with a clearly pre-approved message that tells Applebee’s side of the story.

However, it was posted as a comment on the original status update on the page and, with more than 17,000 comments on there, quickly got lost in the shuffle.

Note to anyone managing social networks: If you have to provide a statement, do so with a new status update.

Of course, it was impossible to find after five minutes because apparently people sit up all night to post on social networks.

Because the statement was impossible to find, the person handling the account began to tag the people who were commenting, and copied and pasted the message explaining the situation.

Now, mind you, this is in the middle of the night, so people called out Applebee’s for copying and pasting. Have a look:

I won’t detail the rest of the story (you can see it, images and all, in this photo essay), but Applebee’s began to argue with people around 4 a.m. By 5 a.m. there were thousands of comments.

As of this writing, there were nearly 33,000 comments on the first update that explains why the waitress was fired, and the second update that pretty much says the same thing (but uses “regrettable” about a thousand times in one paragraph). People are still commenting, and now there is no response from the company.

Applebee’s has a widget on its home page called “What’s the Buzz,” that updates instantly with tweets from customers:

Some people are saying Applebee’s deleted the comments, but it looks like it hid them and other posts from the stream. It does, however, look like Applebee’s deleted its comments from Friday night/Saturday morning.

What if this happens to you?

If this had happened three years ago, I would have approached this article differently. Today I look at things with a different perspective, and I want to try to put myself in Applebee’s shoes.

I would hate to be Applebee’s PR firm right now. My guess is—based on the middle-of-the-night comments and the tagging, arguing, and copying and pasting—the person who manages the page did all this on his or her own.

I would be furious with the person if he or she was one of our clients.

That said, this could have happened to any one of us. We have clients who I separate myself from solely because I would be able to think about the things that could happen to them.

You can’t prevent it, but you can manage it. Mike Mullet’s post talks about how you never hear about a well-managed issue. He’s right. If Applebee’s had handled this differently, it would have been a well-managed issue no one heard about instead of a crisis.

Tips for managing an issue

1. Please, please, please have a communications expert on speed dial. He doesn’t have to be on your staff, but please become best friends with someone who does this for a living. Just because someone uses social media really well does not make him a communications expert.

2. Think before you react. This is emotional. Someone is attacking you or the place where you work. It’s hard to be objective, but don’t let your emotions take control.

3. If you hold a position on something (e.g. “it’s against our policy to post a guest’s name”) and you’re proven wrong (“when it’s good feedback, it’s OK to post his name”), reassess your position.

4. Empower people to communicate via social networks, but have a strict policy when it comes to a crisis. There is no reason on Earth this Applebee’s person should have been posting in the middle of the night, tagging people, and arguing with them. Yes, crisis control said a team had to work the weekend, but not in this manner.

5. Remember, two little words go a long way: “I’m sorry.” Use them and mean it when you say it.

6. Did I mention you should have a communications expert on speed dial?

If you take these six (OK, five) things to heart and implement them, the issue never becomes a crisis.

The last thing I’ll say before I turn it over to you is this: It turns out there is a new ambulance chaser in town:

Gini Dietrich is founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, Inc. A version of this article originally appeared on Spin Sucks. (Image via)

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