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Applebee's social media faux pas a 'learning experience'

Image: Applebee's receipt
The receipt shows the comment from Pastor Alois Bell.

When the Internet attacks, you’d better be ready. This runaway train can move at lightning speed and if you don’t know how react, you could get crushed.

Applebee’s felt the fury of the Internet after a waitress in St. Louis was fired for posting a customer’s receipt (including a legible signature) on Reddit and the story went viral.

Read: Applebee’s waitress canned after posting pastor’s tip

“Obviously, this was a learning experience for us,” said Applebees' spokesman Dan Smith.

Chelsea Welch posted the receipt online – in violation of corporate policy – because the customer, a local pastor, had written a snarky comment about the 18 percent tip automatically added to the bill for service to a large party:

“I give God 10% why do you get 18?”

Welch, who did not serve the table in question, said she thought the comment written to her co-worker was insulting, but comical. “I posted it to Reddit because I thought other users would find it entertaining,” she told The Consumerist.

Trying to respond to the growing news coverage and share its side of the story with customers, Applebee’s posted a message on its Facebook page. “We wish this situation hadn't happened,” the post began.

The negative comments poured in, thousands an hour.

R.L. Stollar, news editor at the Eugene Daily News, stayed up all night to watch and document what he described in his blog as a “social media meltdown.” Stollar said it was like watching a train wreck.

“This is a company that didn’t understand how to respond to an Internet mob,” he said. “This whole thing would probably have gone away if they hadn’t kept pouring gasoline on the fire.”

What went wrong?
Applebee’s says its social media policy is simple: to be as open and accessible as possible.

“Transparency matters to us,” said spokesman Smith. “We want to hear from our guests regardless of the subject matter.”

Smith said the company’s four-member social media team gives a personal response to more than 90 percent of the posts. But until this incident, most of the posts dealt with questions about menu items or store locations, nothing like the venom being expressed in these comments.

One example: “I don't even eat here, so I can't quit eating here. But I would! You guys just suck that much.”

Smith told me they tried to respond to every comment, in many cases simply cutting and pasting the corporate policy statement – something that didn't go over very well. Social media has a new and different set of rules and people who use it have different expectations than other forms of communication.

“It seemed as if they didn’t know what they were doing,” said Travis Mayfield, director of digital social strategy for Fisher Interactive Network. “It came across as snarky, maybe even angry.”

Finally, unable to keep up with the torrent of posts, the company decided late Thursday night to disable user posts on its Facebook page. On Friday they posted a status update containing the corporate statement and hid their previous post, along with its comment thread that had amassed more than 20,000 responses.

“That was a terrible idea,” said Mayfield. “It seemed like they were deleting posts, which is the worst thing you could possibly do.”

Applebee’s Smith insisted the company did not delete or block any comments. He said everything that had disappeared when the company turned off comments and hid its initial post, reappeared when the post was restored and the page's wall was re-enabled.

“At no point was this done to mislead or delete comments, we simply couldn’t keep up,” Smith said.

Smith explained that they even reviewed all the posts caught by the Facebook filters and added those comments back into the stream, except for the ones that were racist or pornographic.

“Our message going forward: We want the feedback,” Smith said. “We read every post and are responding as quickly as we can.”

I asked Smith if Applebee’s made a mistake by turning off the wall, which appeared at the time to be an attempt to delete unfavorable comments?

“We’ll need to have a conversation about that,” he said.

Lessons learned the hard way
While many will want to attach sinister motives to Applebee’s actions, it appears this was another case of not being digitally literate.

“It’s very complicated to respond to negative social media,” explained Louis Richmond, crisis management expert at Richmond Public Relations in Seattle. “We tell our clients to respond, but don’t criticize. And never hide posts because people see that as censorship.”

William Ward, social media professor at Syracuse University, urges companies to be prepared for a social media disaster because the wrong response can make things much worse.

“You need to have internal policies and procedures on how to handle something like this,” he said. “If you address the negative comments in a positive way, it’s an opportunity to show people you’re listening. You may actually create a more loyal customer or fan just from engaging with them the right way.”

Companies also need to learn that not responding is sometimes the correct response. If you’re under attack, you may need to get out of the way and let it play out. This is especially true when the conversation has turned so angry and negative that any response will just fan the flames.

As Mayfield puts it, “You don’t wrestle with a pig because you get very dirty and the pig just loves it.”

And now what?
Applebee’s will be dealing with this issue for awhile. There are already calls to boycott the restaurant and a online petition to get Chelsea Welch her job back.

The company says it does not plan to rehire the waitress.

“There was a clear violation of policy here, one that was a condition of employment,” Smith said. “We respect that some people do not agree with our position.”

Will this hurt business?

PR expert Louis Richmond believes the company could lose some customers in the next few weeks , but he doesn't think the brouhaha will have a long-term negative impact on the business.

“They’ll just have to weather the storm,” he said. “And not do anything else stupid.”

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Herb Weisbaum is The ConsumerMan. Follow him on Facebook and Twitteror visit The ConsumerMan website.