Applebee’s Social Media Team Contracts Foot-In-Mouth Disease

Social media can be a fickle friend. Follow community engagement best practices and you’ll be rewarded with a loyal (rabid, even) community. But, boy—pull a boneheaded move and they’ll turn on you. And it won’t be pretty. (Just ask Applebee’s.)

Now, does that mean engaging your community in the social space could present a liability and should, therefore, be avoided?

Heck, no.

Those negative conversations are going to happen with or without you, right? Far better to have an active presence, so you can diffuse situations early on.

That said there’s a right way to do social media, and a wrong way.

And Applebee’s got it wrong six ways from Sunday.

applebees facebook status comments

What happened? And how can you avoid a similar debacle?

Read on, my friends…

Kindling: How a social media firestorm begins

So, imagine you’re a hardworking waitress, hustling nachos and blended strawberry margaritas, with the hope you’ll earn enough tips to make a livable wage. What’s your reaction when a customer (and a servant of God, no less), leaves you this note?

Applebees receipt

I’m not sure about you, but I’d definitely have my hackles up.

Well, this server’s colleague, Chelsea Welch, was incensed. And at the same time, she found the receipt hysterically funny in all of its sermonizing self-righteousness. So, she posted it on Reddit.

As you might imagine, the receipt generated a lot of buzz—overwhelmingly in favor of the server.

Sadly, Chelsea didn’t crop the customer’s signature from the image before sharing it, and when word got back to the pastor, Applebee’s management got a phone call demanding her head.

Chelsea was summarily fired, and news of her firing unleashed a social media firestorm.

Like a bad traffic accident, it’s nearly impossible to look away when situations like these unfold. Beyond the social media blood and gore, though, these events also present a great opportunity to learn what not to do.

So, please, watch and learn.

Applebee’s Opens Mouth, Inserts Foot

After receiving a flood of negative comments, which appeared on their website a la’ “What’s the Buzz” widget, Applebee’s posted this status to its Facebook page:

applebees facebook status

Insert Foot #1: When communicating in the social space you must always remain social. If there’s one thing social media communities hate, it’s corporate-speake. Just. Don’t. Do. It.

Of course, that was just the beginning…

Applebee’s tried to respond to each comment their “fans” posted. (Keep in mind, they were receiving thousands of negative comments by the hour.)

So, the social media team resorted to copying and pasting a statement regarding Applebee’s corporate policy over and over and over again.

Insert Foot #2: Your social media peeps won’t tolerate copy/pasted replies. If you can’t respond to posts with genuine, personalized comments, don’t bother.

Inundated by comments on a related subject? Then a meaningful status update that attempts to address everyone’s concerns would be the better option.

Think this was the end of their social media foibles? Wrong.

Unable to keep up, Applebee’s posted a new status update and hid the previous one—a status that had more than 20,000 comments. To the many people following the convo, it appeared that Applebee’s had just deleted their comments.

Insert Foot #3: Hiding or deleting status updates and comments is a recipe for social media uprising success. Unless a comment violates community rules on harassment or hate speech, they shouldn’t be hidden—especially if they’re a negative reflection of you or your brand.

In fact, this is the type of situation that you can defuse by engaging in a conversation and being transparent.

As for the new status, it didn’t take long for people to smell blood in the water and go in for the kill.

See, Applebee’s posted their corporate policy as it related to customer privacy.

screenshot of applebees facebook status

Yet, just weeks before, they had posted a customer’s glowing review—with name clearly visible—to their timeline.

Insert Foot #4: Oh, how social media communities hate hypocrisy. Before you launch into a long diatribe of your corporate policies and values, make sure your side of the street is clean first.

Oh, and don’t hide the evidence of your wrongdoing. Trust me, when you hide your post, it will be too late. Someone will have already captured a screen grab. (See Foot #3)

applebees timeline privacy

As you might imagine, it’s hard to communicate effectively when you’ve got so many feet jammed in your mouth.

Inoculate yourself against social media screw-ups

Social media is a powerful communication channel. And with the necessary nuance, it can help you build your brand and engage your audience. Blunder the job, though, and your business decisions and customer interactions will be placed under a glaring interrogation lamp, while your community unleashes its fury.

How do you get it right?

  • Review business decisions through a social media filter. How will your community perceive your decisions and, if the reaction is expected to be negative, is it worth the cost?

In the case of server, Chelsea Welch, disciplinary action and additional training would have been the smarter decision here, IMO.

Remember—social media will magnify your poor business decisions, so give community reaction some consideration.

  • Develop a crisis management plan. In the midst of a social media blow-up is the exact wrong time to determine core messages and who should respond. Instead, give your social media crisis management plan the time it’s due.

What types of negative comments might you expect from your community? Identify the range of possibilities. Then, establish talking points and a response team, should comments need to be escalated. Bouncing potential replies among a team also increases the chances that you’ll identify potential pitfalls in any particular response, helping you shape a comment that will bring down the temperature in the room.

  • Engage negative posters. The key to social media is remembering that you’re dealing with human beings and they have an intrinsic need to be heard.

So, start by validating the commenter’s experience. Let them know that you understand why they’re upset and that you “hear them.” Then, where you’re legally able to do so, claim responsibility and apologize. And where you weren’t at fault, gently identify those factors, too.

Don’t forget to thank the person for bringing the issue to your attention and invite them to contact you by phone or email to continue a deeper conversation “offline.”

Not only will the poster feel that they’re being cared for, you’ll be demonstrating that you value your community to everyone else who’s watching. And trust me, they’re watching.

  • Don’t delete comments. No one wants to feel ignored. So, unless a comment violates your community rules regarding harassment and hate speech, let negative comments stand.

Instead, diffuse the situation with thoughtful dialogue.

  • Know when to walk away. Feeling under attack? Getting defensive? Take a break to collect your thoughts, and only re-engage when you’re feeling calm. It’s difficult to feel under fire and be empathic at the same time.

(Nestle’s social media manager broke that cardinal rule and, suffice it to say, things didn’t end well for him or his brand.)

Social Media: Come on in…

…the water’s fine.

Don’t let the damage to Applebee’s brand deter you from engaging with your community, as engagement is the key to handling these kinds of situations.

There’s a lot you can learn from your fans, and a thoughtful, ongoing dialogue means your community will very likely cut you a little slack when you slip up.

Provided, of course, that you always follow Social Media Rule 1: Be human.