What Applebee’s Should’ve Done: Armchair Quarterbacking a Social Media Crisis

The armchair quarterbacking as to how Applebee’s should’ve handled their total social media meltdown last week has begun. “They should’ve…”, “If they were smart, they’d…”, “Oh, you never do that!…”

First of all, if you’re not up-to-speed on the disaster that Applebee’s created, this is an excellent recap. You should read it.

As in most cases like this, the variables are hard to track and you’ll find speculation and rumors galore (not to mention rantings and rationalizations). So, for the sake of my argument, let’s start with a basic assumption: the server violated company policy by posting the image of the customer’s receipt.

With that in mind, here’s what I see as the problems with Applebee’s responses:

  • Firing people has a greater chance of making you look like a big, stinky jerk than not firing someone. This is especially true when the “facts” are in question and the violation is something that a lot of us have done (or can certainly understand why one would do so).
  • Not having a crisis plan with a social media component is stupid. Of course, not having either a crisis plan or a social media plan to start with is also stupid. Considering the shallow, promotional blather on the Applebee’s Facebook Page prior to this incident, I’m guessing it had neither.
  • The Applebee’s response on Facebook – from the contrite posts to the verbose comments to the time stamp of the responses (3 am? Drunk Facebooking anyone? This was an unfair comment based on time stamps reflecting time zone differences.) – violated social media management 101. But when you have no strategy and you don’t know how to talk to people, that’s what happens.

Awesome photo by Decoded Science, which has a nice recap, too. 

So, what should Applebee’s have done?

  • Not fired the server. I’m sure the company panicked, was trying to “set an example” and any number of knee jerk responses. Likely the action was taken by the franchisee and not the company (indicating the franchisee experience with social media and access to it is totally divorced from the corporate presence), adding a layer of complexity. But not firing the server would’ve saved a lot of headache. 
  • Issued an update early (as early as possible!) that said something like, “We value our relationships with our employees and our guests. We wouldn’t be here without them. We feel compelled to share our view on the photo shared by one of our servers. At Applebee’s, we’re committed to doing the right thing for everyone involved. We have apologized to the guest. In addition, we will immediately begin social media training with all our employees across every Applebee’s franchise, starting with the one in St. Louis where this occurred. We want our employees to be smart about risks not only to our business, but to their customers and to themselves. We also want employees who are empowered to share.”
  • Created a social media policy, which could be shared on social media channels.
  • Been transparent, authentic and, yes, human, in all its interactions.
  • Followed up with social  media training and demonstrated the company’s commitment in tangible, visible ways. Like maybe sharing photos featuring and taken by employees?

By responding quickly and framing of the discussion, rather than letting it get completely out of control, Applebee’s gets to come out looking like the good guy instead of the big, stinky jerk. By treating everyone involved – the server, the guest, the Facebook fans – like people, the conversation would’ve stayed civil and “on topic.”

Taking a longer-term view, Applebee’s clearly had no social media policy that was relevant to employees, had very little strategy in place (how many photos of food & promotional nonsense can you post?) and does not appear to have a crisis communications plan that included social media.

As with most things like this, there were a lot of things Applebee’s should’ve been doing well in advance of any incident occurring to build goodwill and provide a culture in which something like this wouldn’t have happened (because employees understood their role) or if it did the company could’ve activated a plan to minimize damage and maintain relationships.

Come sit in the armchair with me and do a little quarterbacking. What would your advice to Applebee’s be?

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  • On the Field

    A lot of respect for recognizing that you are, indeed, armchair quarterbacking. In my book, that puts you way ahead of most of the internet. Maybe check your facts on the 3 AM timestamps…for me they show 6 AM and are more indicative of some poor soul’s early start than “drunk Facebooking” – a pretty serious accusation to toss around, don’t you think? Then again, one man’s 6 AM here on the east coast would be a Portland Man or Woman’s 3 AM, right? Maybe take a look at the Nation’s Restaurant News article on this for some extra facts and a pretty different picture than the one the photo essay you’ve linked to presents.

  • kellimatthews

    Fair enough. The 3 am comment was meant to be tongue in cheek… however, even if you remove that detail, the tone & content of the comment was off-base. I stand by my critique of the strategy – or lack thereof (and yes, I read the piece you refer to for the corporate statement).

  • On the Field

    And again, that puts you so far ahead of the rest of the internet mob. Much respect.

  • http://twitter.com/meganhrussell Megan Russell

    Kelli, thanks for sharing this story! I hadn’t heard about Applebee’s crisis yet. It astounded me to read about how poorly they handled this situation – I tend to forget that not every brand or company is entirely up to date with social media practices yet. I completely agree with your recommendations, especially the one about implementing a company-wide social media policy as soon as possible. With regards to their transparency issues, I can’t believe they tried to deny deleting posts and comments by people, that was a bad move on their part.