It all started with a photo on Reddit. Applebee’s waitress Chelsea Welch posted a photo of a receipt to the popular content sharing website, displaying a somewhat rude note from a customer. In reference to the automatic 18% tip added for parties over 8 people, the self-professed pastor scrawled, “I give God 10%. Why do you get 18?” The image quickly went viral, sparking a myriad of discussion on everything from tipping etiquette to religion.
Social media is a great way to engage fans and create buzz about a brand. But since the public is free to post whatever they want, often anonymously and without consequence, any public figure or organization on social media is bound to experience negativity from time to time, and when they do, everyone can see it. Applebee’s was no exception. Irate Netizens spewed vitriol across Facebook and Twitter, promising to boycott the restaurant until Welch was rehired. Still, these things aren’t the end of the world. If handled properly, it’s perfectly possible to get through a social media attack without losing face. Applebee’s didn’t handle it properly.
The first problem was on their website. A widget on their homepage displays all the tweets in which Applebee’s is tagged. Soon after word leaked that Welch was fired, the widget was flooded with negative tweets. While not something they could prevent, it was still a terrible blow to their public image to have these insults scrawled across their homepage.
The next problem was something they had more control over: their response. First, they released a brief statement on their Facebook page, indicating that they regretted the situation, as well as the actions of Ms. Welch. The status got thousands of replies, nearly all negative, some of them very much so. There are two keys to handling a social media disaster with dignity and grace: be prompt, and be personal. Applebee’s was neither. The assault on their Facebook page went on for nearly 12 hours before they responded again—not as another status, but as a comment on the first one. In it, they attempted to explain their position more thoroughly, though still very generically, without addressing the avalanche of hostility that the situation had generated. While respondents on Facebook typically get a notification if a page comments on their own status, the thread had over 17,000 responses by that time, and was getting roughly 1,000 more every hour. Within minutes, the Applebee’s response was lost in the din.
As the venom continued to fly, Applebee’s decided to make their responses more personal. So they began to tag individual commenters and respond to them—using exactly the same response, copied and pasted over and over again. Needless to say, users noticed this, and it didn’t help matters any.
Finally, Applebee’s started giving more personal, individual replies to people’s complaints on Facebook and Twitter. But after all the drama that had gone before it, this gesture came off not as taking an interest in their customers’ concerns, but as patronizing and trying desperately to save face.
By genuinely caring about customers and trying to address and resolve their concerns, a brand can get through a social media disaster with its dignity intact. But if a company is concerned only with protecting its own public image (as Applebee’s was), the ensuing backlash is one that’s almost impossible to recover from.