What Can We Learn From The Applebee’s Fiasco?

The Internet is all abuzz about Applebee’s being the latest victim of a social media mob. Some call it the Applebee’s social media Meltdown.

I feel like I could be called as an expert witness on this case. I spent 10 years of my life as a waitress in restaurants similar to Applebee’s and the past 7 years in social media (college degrees and other corporate jobs in between).

I should be able to see this situation from all sides, but honestly, I found myself scratching my head as I read the account of what happened.

The incident started when a Pastor who was paying for her part of the meal of a large party, crossed out the automatic 18% tip and wrote on the receipt ““I give God 10% why do you get 18,”  above her signature.

To the witness stand, I call the me who was a waitress for 10 years and I would be pissed! But I also realize that this happens at restaurants, it is part of the job.  I actually had a church group that I waited on scam me out of money once.

Another waitress took a photo of the receipt and posted it on Reddit, a community made up of people who will definitely side with the waitress, and so the story spreads with not so nice things being said about the Pastor. The photo of the receipt has the name of the Pastor on it and she is eventually alerted to what is going on and informs Applebee’s.

Alright, this is where the me who has advised individuals on social media etiquette takes the stand. Social Media is powerful, and “with great power comes great responsibility.” I see the server taking action against the pastor, but doing so publicly will come back and bite you. I waited tables before there was social media or even the Internet. We had our ways to take action against certain guests (this is why you should ALWAYS be polite to your server and tip appropriately), but we did not pour the drinks all over the guest (yes that happened) and then get on the loudspeaker and announce what we did. No, the action had to look like an accident or not be traced back to the server. I am sorry, the server who posted the picture was in the wrong in that she did not understand what she does on the Internet is similar to announcing an action or opinion over the loudspeaker, which I am sure she would not have done. The computer screen does not shield you.

This is why having a social media policy is NOT good enough….

Here is where I think Applebee’s did some things right regarding their social media program.

From what I have read, they have a social media policy that employees sign which states:

Employees must honor the privacy rights of APPLEBEE’s and its employees by seeking permission before writing about or displaying internal APPLEBEE’s happenings that might be considered a breach of privacy and confidentiality…this includes guests….

The way the legal system has been struggling to catch up with social media actions, I do not know if this policy will stand up in the court of law. Employees have a right to complain about their job conditions, but to call out a customer may be a different story. I am glad to know they had a social media policy though.

The waitress who posted the picture was fired for violating the Applebee’s social media policy.

The problem is that the social media mob is not going to emotionally take the side of the Pastor and her right to privacy. Since most of us have worked with the public and have had to deal with people we feel did us wrong, we will empathize with the waitress. So, as the story evolved so did the social media protest.

The second thing that I commend Applebee’s for is responding to the attacks. I believe their responses were professionally written and sincere. I believe they really tried. But they did not understand how to deal with an emotionally charged mob.

Here is what they could have done better.

First of all, I believe that Applebee’s was in the right to fire the waitress and that there is no reason for them to cave into the pressure of the social media mob. But they needed to take a stronger stand against the mob.

As soon as Applebee’s noticed that this story was going to be a big deal on social media, they should have got in front of it and made it a big deal themselves. They posted their responses to the mob within the comments section (you can find the details on this blog). You can tell they were responding in a way where they wanted to keep the issue on the “down low” and make it just go away. That gave them the same result as what swatting a hornet’s nest will give you. Don’t swat at it, take a blowtorch to it. Go big! Post your side of the story as a prominent Facebook status and take steps to own the search results for those who are looking into what the story is all about. Many people will not agree with Applebee’s, but some, like me, will.

Understand that your side of the story is not going to quiet the mob and that responding to them directly is only going to fuel their fire. Let the mob vent. Don’t block them from your page, don’t delete their comments,  let them vent. Ideally, guide their venting to the appropriate status. Currently, the Applebee’s Facebook page has 2 posts explaining their situation up with approximately 30,000 comments on them. I think 2 updates plus all their responses within the comments section is a little too much. One update with the facts is enough.

Will Applebee’s lose customers over this situation? Maybe a few, but nothing for them to panic about. Is this a huge social media fail? No. I have seen lots worse where the company behaved as if they did not care about the public. I think in this situation, Applebee’s was trying to care a little too much. They went to a lot of effort to continuously to provide the facts and explain their side of the situation, which was perceived by the mob as being argumentative or confrontational.

I have seen a number of posts about how bad Applebee’s was in this situation. Not one post that I have read has said what the right thing would have been for Applebee’s to do. I suspect many people would like the waitress to have not been fired. But then where do we draw the line on privacy? Can any server begin to post pictures of stupid things their customers are doing? Because I promise you, we all do stupid things that we would not want it to be shared on the Internet.

As I said at the beginning of the post, this one has me scratching my head. It is easy to say that Applebee’s failed in their social media efforts here because obviously, they are currently dealing with an angry mob. But what could they have done to avoid having to deal with such a mob, besides not fire the waitress?

What would you have advised?