Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Writing Wednesday: Averting disaster at Applebee's

You've probably seen news stories about the Applebee's waitress who received a receipt with a note from a pastor that said, "I give God 10%. Why do you get 18?" Her co-worker, Chelsea Welch, took a picture of the receipt and shared it online, where it went viral; Welch was subsequently fired for violating a customer's privacy.

Sounds simple enough, right? People leaving notes on receipts is an everyday thing now. Even football player Peyton Manning got roped into a restaurant receipt fiasco las year when the server he left an extra $200 tip for got fired for posting a picture of the receipt online.

But social media blew what started out as an ordinary story WAY out of proportion -- and Applebee's only perpetuated the negative comments on its Facebook page and has now caused a PR nightmare with 20,000 unhappy people spreading the word about Applebee's business practices.

You can read the entire story in this crazy-detailed post by R.L. Stollar (and don't be intimidated by the length; I promise it is worth the read). My boss sent it to my team this afternoon, and I read it with horror. It's a social media train wreck with cars that got derailed and are continuing to blow up on their own hours later.

Since I update my company's Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter pages daily, I found this story particularly horrifying -- since you never know what's going to happen online, especially with negative comments about a brand. So I thought I'd post a few of my takeaways from Applebee's disaster. I know most of you aren't in the field of communication, but it's worth thinking about this in terms of personal defamation as well, if it ever happens to you.

  • Don't ever hide or delete negative comments on your Facebook or Twitter page unless they personally attack someone or are offensive. Occasionally, my company receives negative Facebook comments, usually from former employees. I'll admit it: When I first starting managing our social media accounts, I wanted to delete derogatory comments from our page. No one wants  potential employees to read negative words about their brand and get the wrong idea. 

  • Here's why it's bad: If you delete every bad comment you receive, commenters will only spread the word that  you are censoring the page and people will lose trust in your brand. Instead of deleting or hiding things you don't want others to read, leave them alone. It makes your company look real -- and chances are, the people who love your company will stand up for you publicly (it has happened to us!). Comments that single out one person or contain strong profanity, however, should be removed so that it's obvious you are monitoring your page.

  • Be professional at all times on social media -- but be real, too. Applebee's is taking a lot of heat for cutting and pasting its canned response and reposting it to individual commenters on Facebook. It may save time, but it's obvious that you're insincere and simply trying to do damage control rather than address concerns and apologize. Sometimes, it's better to cut the clich├ęd crap (we appreciate your business and are grateful for your feedback) and post a heartfelt (but still diplomatic and professional) response instead. However, responding personally to 10,000 commenters on your page is not professional -- or feasible.

  • Using correct spelling and grammar on social media is a big deal. In his/her haste to respond to thousands of angry commenters on Facebook, Applebee's social media/PR specialist failed to spell crucial words like their and they're correctly and missed quite a few commas and periods. And it wasn't just grammar aficionados like me who noticed: Commenters were calling the specialist out on mistakes and fanning the fire. Bottom line: If you're going to post a statement on your personal website or your company's, make sure you have time to proofread, because people will nail you for mistakes and make things worse. P.S. Capitalizing nouns like guests and team members in an attempt to show camaraderie only makes you look foolish -- and irritates people who hate unnecessary capitalization (like me).

  • Posting important updates (or doing damage control) in the middle of the night is never a good idea. There is nothing that can't wait until at least 9 a.m. when you're (somewhat) well-rested and can think clearly about what you want to say and a diplomatic way to address the negative comments on your social media page. Applebee's social media specialist could have saved herself a major headache by posting an update on its Facebook and Twitter pages right after the story started to blow up and then waiting until the morning to post subsequent updates letting commenters know that she had received their comments. 2 a.m. comments are never going to be very effective -- and they make you look like you're desperately trying to stop your brand from unraveling, as opposed to a calm persona that suggests you have everything under control.

  • It's always important to have a strategy in place before posting updates on social media or responding to negative feedback. Whenever I have a question about whether I should delete a Facebook comment that might offend someone, I talk to both my boss and someone in HR first. We generally let every comment stand, in the spirit of transparency, but occasionally we do end up removing comments that offend our people. Having a strategy and an unspoken rule about comments in place prevents frantic middle-of-the-night posts and responses -- and it gives you an extra source of confidence when you're unsure of how to proceed.
Phew! If you can't tell, I am passionate about communication and fascinated by social media and how it is affecting brands today. What did you think of the Applebee's Facebook fiasco? Were you as interested in it as I was?


  1. I completely agree with every point you made. And I agree that they handled the situation very poorly. I do not, however, have a problem with the employee being fired. If I were to make a negative comment online about any of my company's customers, regardless of how rude they can be, I would also be fired. I don't find that to be outrageous. What I do find to be outrageous is how many people are leaving negative comments on FB. Maybe it's just me, but I rarely post or comment on FB, and prefer to remain uninvolved when it comes to situations like this. It drives me crazy how confrontational and tactless people can be online. Is it the anonymity? Or do these people think they're actually affecting social change. Peeps are cray cray. :) Sorry to use your blog to rant. If you're offended by my comment, or disagree, feel free to delete it. I promise not to spam you with complaints.

  2. I agree. It seems so many incidents are being handled poorly on social media. Idk if it is due to lack of training or that the medium itself is a newer platform, but it's becoming a problem. I don't think she should've been fired, but I understand why they fired her. I wonder if the preacher does that everywhere?

  3. I like your blog! It's so nice! : )

  4. Wow! This is so fascinating. I have to admit I hadn't even heard any of the hype surrounding it--probably because I never listen to or read the news. But I thought you brought up some really excellent points. It's obvious you know what you're talking about.


Thanks for sharing your beautiful thoughts! I love reading them.