Gini Dietrich

Six Tips for Managing an Out-of-Control Social Media Crisis

By: Gini Dietrich | February 4, 2013 | 

One would think, in 2013, anyone who does social media professionally has this whole social web figured out. Particularly when one works for a big brand that has hundreds of thousands of customers who know how to use Facebook and Twitter.

But I guess we know what happens when one assumes.

To prove the “assume” point, let’s take Applebee’s as case in point. The Mercury News sums up the situation quite nicely:

“A waitress at a St. Louis Applebee’s lost her job for posting online the receipt upon which a pastor had declined to leave a tip, with a snarky note saying she gave God 10 percent.

“After her dinner on Jan. 25, Pastor Alois Bell crossed out the automatic 18 percent tip charged for parties of more than eight. “I give God 10% why do you get 18,” she wrote above her signature.

“Employee Chelsea Welch — a colleague of the stiffed server — took a picture of the receipt and uploaded it to the online site Reddit. She subsequently lost her job, an Applebee’s spokesman confirmed to, for violating a customer’s privacy.”

Alright. So the friend of the stiffed waitress gets fired for posting a copy of the receipt on Reddit. And it’s pretty crappy someone won’t leave a tip (though the pastor claims she left cash, which has not been confirmed), especially for a large party and because she disagrees with the percentage, not because the service was horrendous.

But that’s not the story. The story isn’t even the rage people felt as they took to the web to demand the waitress get her job back, creating “Rehire Chelsea Welch” groups on Facebook.

The Real Story

The story, the marvelous train wreck of a story, is in how Applebee’s responded.

Around 3 p.m. on Friday, Applebee’s posted this on their Facebook page:

I don’t disagree the waitress should have been fired. If it’s against their policy and violates the guest’s right to privacy, so be it. That’s a fireable offense.

But then, guess what? This (captured by IfYouCantAffordtoTip) is also a fireable offense as it violates the guest’s right to privacy because it shows his name at the bottom:

Around midnight on Friday, the issue began to really take steam and people began commenting back about the hypocrisy and double standard.

Mismanagement of the Facebook Page

But here’s where is gets good: At 3 a.m. (yes, in the middle of the night), whomever controls the Applebee’s Facebook and Twitter streams began commenting to people with a clearly pre-approved message that tells their side of the story.

However, it was posted as a comment on the original status update on their page and, with more than 17,000 comments on there, it quickly got lost in the shuffle (note to anyone managing the social networks: If you have to provide a statement, do it as a new status update).

It, of course, was impossible to find after five minutes because, apparently, people sit up all night to post on the social networks. Side note: Do people do this while they’re drinking? After they get home from the bars? If they have insomnia?

Because the statement was impossible to find, the person handling the account began to tag the people who were commenting and copying and pasting the message explaining the situation.

It’s the Middle of the Night

Now, mind you, this is in the middle of the night so now people are calling them out for copying and pasting. Have a look:

I won’t detail the rest of the story (you can see it, images and all, in this photo essay), but Applebee’s began to argue with people around 4 a.m. And by 5 a.m. on Saturday morning, there were thousands of comments.

As of this writing, there are nearly 33,000 comments combined on the first update that explains why the waitress that was fired and the second update that pretty much says the same thing (but uses “regrettable” about a thousand times in the one paragraph). People are still commenting and, now, there is no response from the company.

The company has a widget on their home page called, “What’s the Buzz,” that updates instantly with tweets from customers:

Some people are saying comments have been deleted, but it looks like they hid them and other posts from their stream. It does, however, look like they’ve deleted the Applebee’s comments from Friday night/Saturday morning.

What if this Happens to You?

If this had happened three years ago, I would have approached this blog post differently. Today, I look at things with a different perspective and I want to try to put myself in their shoes.

First of all, I would hate to be Applebee’s PR firm right now. My guess is – based on the middle of the night comments and the tagging and the arguing and the copying and pasting – the person who manages the page did all this on their own.

I would be furious with them if they were one of our clients.

That said, this could have happened to any one of us. We have clients who I separate myself from the day-to-day for the sole purpose of being able to think about the things that could happen to them.

You can’t prevent it, but you can manage it. If you missed Mike Mullet’s post here last week, he talks about how you never hear about a well-managed issue.

He’s right. If this had been handled differently, it would have been a well-managed issue no one heard about instead of a crisis.

Tips for Managing an Issue

  1. Please, please, please have someone on speed dial who is a communications expert. They don’t have to be on your staff, but please become BFFs with someone who does this for a living. Just because someone uses social media really well, does not a communication expert them make.
  2. Think before you react. This is emotional. Someone is attacking you or the place where you work. It’s hard to be objective. Do it and don’t let your emotions take control.
  3. If you hold a position on something (it’s against our policy to post a guest’s name) and you’re proven wrong (when it’s good feedback, it’s okay to post their name), reassess your position.
  4. Empower people to communicate via the social networks, but have a strict policy in place when it comes to crisis. There is no reason, on earth, this person should have been posting in the middle of the night, tagging people, and arguing with them. Yes, the crisis control meant a team had to work the weekend, but not in this manner.
  5. Remember two little words go a very long way: I’m sorry. Use them and mean it when you say it.
  6. Did I mention having a communications expert on speed dial?

If you take these six (okay, five) things to heart and implement them, the issue never becomes a crisis.

The last thing I’ll say before I turn it over to you for your thoughts is this…it turns out there is a new ambulance chaser in town:

About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

  • jenzings

    “First of all, I would hate to be Applebee’s PR firm right now.”
    A friend of mine told me that 3 or 4 months ago, Applebee’s separated from their agency. I have zero way to confirm this, but it certainly seems like they headed into this without the advice of an agency.

    • @jenzings I would like to think this kind of stuff happens if the organization does not have a PR firm on board. But, having just had an experience with a former client where they went off the rails without discussing with us first (we found out by seeing their stream), I’m not naive to think this doesn’t happen with an agency on board.
      That said, it wouldn’t surprise me if they no longer have an agency. They’re a train wreck over and over again. We wouldn’t touch them.

  • You hit the nail on the head when you recommended people think before they react. When you’re arguing with customers at 3am, you are obviously not being rational or proactive with your messaging. I actually sort of feel sorry for the poor soul manning the page in the middle of the night. I imagine them all bleary eyed and panicked, feeling as if they can’t possibly call their boss at 3am. Applebee’s has always been a bit of a PR nightmare though, haven’t they?

    • @TaraGeissinger I think they may have even been drunk…I can’t imagine a rational person does that in the middle of the night. Either that or the person behind the avatar doesn’t have PR experience and really was so panicked he/she was just trying to “fix” it.
      Hope you enjoyed your afternoon by the pool!

      • @ginidietrich  @TaraGeissinger “I think they may have even been drunk” – best comment. This whole thing really amused my schadenfroh side, but you do have to feel bad for someone clearly panicking in the middle of the night.
        Another fantastic example why brands MUST have a crisis strategy in place, and a system for escalating. I think the boss would not have minded the 3am call if it prevented what was already a PR crisis from turning into a PR tsunami.

        • @katskrieger  @ginidietrich Ha! I was going to suggest that drunkenness may have played a role in this. And yes, I am sure at this point the boss (or PR team) would have welcomed the opportunity to have jumped in at the 3am point instead of fixing this mess now.
          Air was cool (for FL) but sun was warm. I think it was the first time we just sat and relaxed by the pool in a long, long time. There are benefits to kids getting older — you can actually sit down for 30-mins. LOL!

        • @TaraGeissinger  @katskrieger If I had gotten that call at 3 a.m., I would have asked some very important questions: Has anyone died? Are the comments worse than they were at 10 p.m.? Can it wait until morning? If the answers were no, no, and yes, I would have suggested sleep first.

  • M_Koehler

    Wow, great post. But why did this have to happen in my adopted city. Are there any good stories that come from here other than Cards beat the Cubs? I didn’t realize all of this was going on. Jeez, who was watching their feed, a 14 year old? I’ve seen Trent handle things more professionally.

    • @M_Koehler It almost makes you want to go into that location, doesn’t it?!?

      • M_Koehler

        @ginidietrich Almost, until I remember its an Applebees

  • M_Koehler

    And yes drunk people and insomniacs are on Facebook at all hours of the night. And Pinterest. Please take Pinterest away from my sister when she cannot sleep

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  • I wonder if Applebee’s page manager was out for the evening and checked in after a night out to see what was happening on their page? This reeks of panic and inexperience.
    In the world of the 24 hour news cycle, sometimes it is best to pause and consider what you are going to say next. Applebee’s would have been better represented if they would have held a meeting Saturday morning with their communications and social media teams, and crafted the best response plan possible.

    • @briantudor That would be my guess…had a few drinks, panicked, thought he/she would take care of the problem and instead got wrapped up in the emotion of it all. 
      Fun seeing you here!

      • @ginidietrich :o) 2013 is the year I actually respond to blog posts I enjoy.. #nomoretrolling

  • I think one of the biggest mistakes companies make is that they think since social is instantaneous, they have to respond to EVERYTHING, IMMEDIATELY, ALL THE TIME. OMG. That is so not true. Think, people, think. And as you say at the end of your post, “I’m Sorry” goes a long, long way.

    • @Shonali Part of that is because they’re scared to take too long and they don’t know how much time they can take. Remember when Bodyform came out with that awesome video response to the guy who wrote on their FB page about being duped about periods? It took them three days to craft that response and people skewered them for that. So I think most are trying to figure out where the line is and how to toe it.

      • @ginidietrich  @Shonali I get that (and there’s not handbook for how long you can wait to respond), but I would think saying something along the lines of “Hey, we hear you, we’re looking into this fully and we want you to know that we take it seriously” goes a long way / busy time

        • @ginidietrich  @Shonali *buys time

        • @JoeCardillo  @ginidietrich  @Shonali I absolutely live for that Bodyform video. I laugh about it at random times, in fact.
          I am internalizing this lesson so that I remember it when I need it, because I notice the tendency within myself to want to react immediately.  It’s okay to wait. It’s okay to wait. It’s okay to wait.
          The “we hear you and are working on a thorough response” tactic always gets respect from me. I think sometimes it requires more courage to go that route, because of course it’s preferable to have an immediate and complete answer. But!   … it’s okay to wait.

        • @JoeCardillo That’s totally what we do for negative comments. It does buy time and makes people feel like you’re listening.  @Shonali

        • @dwaynealicie  It’s totally okay to wait. We do this all the time. In fact, if you look at any of the networks we manage, you’ll see lots of, “We totally hear what you’re saying. Can you direct message us your contact info so we can call you?” Sometimes they do it immediately and others they respond days later. That, alone, tells you how important it is to them.

        • @ginidietrich I agree! @JoeCardillo I think that can work a lot of the time… there are some comments, though, that are better off being left alone… and definitely not responded to in a knee-jerk fashion.

        • @Shonali  @ginidietrich Oh yeah, in fact that may be one of the greatest challenges to managing SM brand pages, you are saying a lot by NOT responding to certain things

        • @JoeCardillo Ha, true! @ginidietrich

  • I am familiar with one franchise group that owns about 200 Applebee’s and each unit handles their own social media using a social media platform/dashboard. That software filters for certain words, phrases and images (some of which have to be approved by the central office marketing staff) but I would imagine that particular post would have passed the filter’s “sniff test” and allowed to go live. I’ll be curious to find out if this particular unit is part of that franchise or if they’re in one that uses similar software.

    • @KristenDaukas I’d also be curious to know if the franchisee was handling the updates or the franchisor. Based on the canned messages they posted, I’m leaning toward the latter.

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  • BestRoofer

    Thanks Gini. I always learn something from you! When my new company grows, I’ll make sure to have my speed dial up to date.

    • @BestRoofer You can have me on speed dial even before then…just in case something comes up and you don’t know what to do or need to bounce some ideas off of someone.

  • cksyme

    As one who has been there, done that, I have some additional advice: every negative comment does not need a response. When a swarm shows up from Reddit because you screwed up, you have to let them hate. Apologize and correct the mistake, if you can, but do it in one post pinned to the top and then let them go. Leave an email in the post where people can engage you offline, but do not converse in the public space.  If you must, use Facebook’s filter function to filter profane and graphic language, but don’t delete and just wait out the storm. It will pass and you can get on with the task of rebuilding.

    • @cksyme Indeed. Every positive response doesn’t need a response either. Sometimes a comment should be just that.

    • @cksyme Totally, totally agree. The big problem with the initial response in this case was they did it in a status update so no one saw it. They didn’t actually post it as a status update until later…probably after they were tired of copying and pasting over and over again.

  • Great analysis Gini. Sometimes people think they can handle a situation when they clearly cannot. And many misjudge the IQ of their audience as well. And of course…to quote HIMYM…”Nothing good ever happens after 2am”.

    • @KarenARocks “Nothing good ever happens after 2am.” Love it! So unbelievably true, and very sage advice (as always) from HIMYM.

      • @mickeygomez  @KarenARocks My mom used to say that to us kids all the time when we argued about curfews. She’d say, “What, on earth, are you going to do after midnight that isn’t going to get you in trouble?” Uh….

        • @ginidietrich  @mickeygomez Absolutely. I will pull these same lines on my kids when they are old enough.

        • KevinVandever

          @ginidietrich  @mickeygomez  @KarenARocks Jazz jam sessions happen every so often after 2AM and they are usually awesome. I think it’s an important point that’s been missed in this conversation.

        • @KevinVandever  @mickeygomez  @KarenARocks LOL Kev!

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  • I fear this happening everyday and for over 2 years now I have told myself that I will call @ginidietrich immediately, and if she isn’t reachable I will call bj_emerson and if he isn’t reachable I’ve got 2 more! : )
    No matter if you’ve deal with this before or not I think that you NEED to have a 2nd opinion from someone who is outside your organization.

    • TweetingButler

      @jennimacdonald  @ginidietrich  bj_emerson  Absolutely!  As with any crisis, the valuable input of someone just out of the fray who can think clearly and from all sides of things is vital to the best strategy….

    • @jennimacdonald  The fact that you’re cognizant of it AND experienced enough to know you need someone else’s opinion means this won’t happen to you. You may have an issue, but you’ll know how to manage it before it becomes a crisis.

  • TweetingButler

    I was struck by hearing about the Oreo creative staff, who, when the lights went out at the SuperBowl, changed their ad, in literally short minutes, to be present, there and then.  They did this because of great trust, built on experience, and the entire creative team and decision makers in one room.  Approval was instantaneous….very impressive…..

    • @TweetingButler It WAS very impressive. That’s the whole point of those command centers. What fun it would have been to be sitting there and thinking that quickly on your feet!

  • I have to agree with many of the comments, at 2AM it seems the emotions that were put into motion may have been the result of too many potions. Whatever the elixir (panic, inexperience, ill preparation for crisis) that brought the individual to that freefall, responding at that time of morning, without counsel, is a like pushing the button for a nuclear reaction.

  • mdyoder

    #2 “Think before you react.” To me, this just reinforces the need for a strong social media strategy that addresses dealing with negative feedback. This includes defining who, how, and when you respond along with a social media policy for employees. It seems like Applebees wasn’t prepared for a situation like this.

    • @mdyoder Not prepared and also let emotions get in the way. It’s soooo hard to watch people say negative things about your employer, but you have to be objective.

  • belllindsay

    I love the lawyer. Absolutely love him.

    • @belllindsay I wish I could have written an entire blog post about the new ambulance chasers.

      • HowieG

        @ginidietrich  @belllindsay better yet a reality tv show!

  • Motrin, Dominos, Planned Parenthood, the list of online crises goes on. Don’t you think companies of a particular size embarking on social campaigns be familiar with the past so if something erupts they can follow precedent?

    • @Ari Herzog One would think, Ari. One would think.

  • PattiRoseKnight

    In my opinion the biggest mistake Applebee’s made was to let someone comment who was not a Communications professional; it’s ok to have a junior person post on your FB page but when this type of crisis happens you put someone on it who knows what they are doing.  This could have all been avoided.

    • patmrhoads

      @PattiRoseKnight I respectfully disagree with allowing ‘junior’ people posting for you. It is exactly because situations like this can and do happen that I strongly believe experienced communications professionals should be the only people authorized to post on your company’s behalf on social media. It may seem expensive to pay trained professionals to update statuses or send tweets, but those same people should also be involved in strategy as well. That way when the poop hits the fan, the person/people in place to respond know the strategy, know communications and PR best practices, and are far less prone to overreaction or devolving into arguing with commenters. Just my own feelings on the matter, and I know now everyone agrees with me on this.

      • PattiRoseKnight

        I think a junior person posting is ok if the content is approved by the experienced communications professional retained by the company; that is how junior staff learn. After the receipt was posted the experienced communications professional – either newly hired or already on payroll – should have been monitoring all the networks.  At the very least the junior person should have alerted someone authorized to comment on the issue no matter the time of day or night.  
        I’m hearing now the waitress was tipped with cash and if that’s the case then I have to wonder why a copy of the receipt was posted.  She had to know the company would not tolerate.  If she didn’t know; she does now.

        • @PattiRoseKnight it is possible the “other waitress” – the one that did not serve the pastor but that did post the receipt – did not know that a tip had actually been left. By looking at the receipt, it appears the intention is to give money to God, but not to the human beings working hard for you hear on Earth. Or perhaps, the reddit-posting waitress did know that a tip was left, but was still disgusted at the pastor’s attitude.

        • PattiRoseKnight

          @RizzoTees  I think the pastor could learn a lesson in compassion that’s for sure.  But the waitresses shouldn’t have posted the receipt.  They work in a customer service business like I do and I’ve always operated under the mindset “the customer is always right”….that is not always the case but it’s ok to complain to your friend about the pastor but  not to the world by posting the receipt AND wonder why you don’t have a job.

  • Perfect summary and analysis of an easily avoidable situation.
    I love that you brought out the feelings of the person posting at 3, 4 and 5am. Yes, it’s important for people to acknowledge that there are individuals behind accounts. That element of humanity goes a long way to promote engagement. But there are times when it is critical to separate yourself and focus on being objective, and this is a perfect example of that time.
    The lawyer made me laugh.
    And, um, may I add you to speed dial? 😉

    • @mickeygomez YOU can add me to speed dial, pigeon carrier, string can attention, and everything in between!

      • HowieG

        @ginidietrich  @mickeygomez this is exactly why you should have interns in college run your twitter feed.

  • It is like Ground Hogs day with these things, and they always bring me back to this question:Do the social media managers NOT get trained on PR Basics???????  The first thing we do with clients is TRAIN them on PR.  You would not buy a stick shift without learning how to DRIVE it first.
    Jeez louise.

    • HowieG

      @AmyMccTobin that is why these uproars are gon in days never to be remembered. ground hogs day.

      • @HowieG Why does it make me so angry???

        • HowieG

          @AmyMccTobin feel the rage Amy! Does me too. Remember I went off on Chick-a-Fila and they are still around but @ginidietrich knows their sales I bet!

    • @AmyMccTobin I think the problem is *some* social media managers are *not* PR pros nor do they have that background. It’s SO HARD to know how to react in a crisis or keep your cool without experience (as this case study shows). Which is why I added the first tip twice.

      • @ginidietrich Yes, I’m sure you’re right… but the COMPANY employing those mgrs needs to understand that PR policy and training is tantamount to success.

  • HowieG

    I find two things really funny. I strongly advise businesses that aren’t in the thought sharing business not have a Twitter widget.
    That said. By Wednesday the waitress will still be fired. No one will remember the incident life goes on. For 98% of Social Media PR disasters for big companies that is the result. Life goes on. Because by Friday another company will do something stupid and we will forget the earlier one.
    Unless the incident is truly brand damaging (oil spill, you poisoned people, you tried to defund planned parenthood) I suggest putting a short statement on your website and being quiet. Don’t even respond to people on social media.

    • @HowieG I disagree. In the book I’m writing, I have dug really far into how these crises affect their sales and every, single one of them takes a big hit. I’ll talk about this example in the book and hope to have some sales data to back up why it’s a no-no before we go to print.

      • HowieG

        @ginidietrich i like audio.  you will read me a chapter a night at my bed time

  • HowieG

    BTW how Applebees is in business amazes me. It isn’t the company but the horrible band poorly execute crappy casual dining product they serve. And yes they can hire me to fix that.

  • OH the lawyer. Oh. My. Goodness.

    • @kateupdates Right?! LOL! The ambulance chaser of the new century.

  • ltcassociates

    It’s difficult to find the precise blog I read recently (since “social media crisis” now brings up 833,000,000 hits– which is telling, don’t you think?) but the advice given was to first gather your team, and watch overnight to see if the story popped in the next day’s papers. Real papers.
    I think in their case, they imagined first page, above-the-fold disaster– and they prepared for it accordingly. What they got was a page 26, buried paragraph, followed by… silence.
    Had they executed on their plan– pro-active statement, press release, facebook post, etc., it would have only served to boomerang a low-profile story. That may be a take-away in Applebee’s case: social media is by its nature ephemeral and transient. Even if posted to a high-profile site like Reddit, that receipt would have swiftly been forgotten by a skateboarding squirrel. Sometimes you gotta let it go…

    • ltcassociates

      All right Steve, I’ll see your comment about Old Media vs. New Media, and raise you the following:
      1) HIPAA was enacted in 1997: it’s been the law of the land for some 15-years now. Although pertaining primarily to Protected *Health* Information (PHI), our culture has by now become permeated with the knowledge that you don’t share the private information of others w/o consent.
      Having said that, I’m curious what @ginidietrich would say if the notorious receipt had been posted with the name of the pastor redacted? (Frankly, I think 80% of the point could’ve been made, and conversation engendered, with none of the ill will toward a single individual.)
      2) In light of the– what was it at last count?– 33,000 posts on Facebook mostly ranting about Applebee’s (does this include or exclude the “side of drama” served up by their own staff?), I’m forced to ask *yet again*: what are businesses even doing on Facebook? If our takeaway from this thread is that the site is occupied by teens and drunks in the middle of the night, then why would you send your multi-million dollar enterprise into that morass?
      For those who think the cost-benefit analysis makes sense, let me re-phrase the question: how might this PR event have played out if Applebee’s had NOT had a Facebook account?
      3) For nothing other than lack of time, let’s assume a Judeo-Christian God for the time-being: if we acknowledge that “he” is omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient, then I think we ought to ask ourselves the following. If we are generally pleased with the level of service he’s provided, is not a 20% tip more appropriate than 10? ; )

  • Believe it or not, one of the people on their social media team privately reached out to me about this (AFTER it all happened – I did not advise them. Wiping my hands clean, as it were). Nice guy.
    To paraphrase, the reason they were so communicative in this instance is that’s what (they said) they always do. They have a staff of people responding to Facebook posts and tweets. So, when this situation arose, “We did what they always do. We replied.” Timing, post locations and tone aside, that was their reasoning for jumping in.
    Also, and it may have already been mentioned, but the server that helped the pastor did receive a tip. In fact, it was well over 20% in total, as this social media person at Applebee’s told me that the 18% was indeed paid, plus cash was left on the table. On the receipt, you can see the 18% scratched out, but I have been told the tip was made.
    I’d like to offer a different point of view. I believe they would have had a (slightly smaller) controversy on their hands had they supported their service employee and said, “We love our customers, but you can’t write stuff like that to our wait staff. Sorry, it’s not cool. Give money to God if you desire to, but please tip our waiters and waitresses.” The employee manual allows for a dismissal here, but I don’t think Applebee’s would have had as much to lose by standing with their employees. Why we have to tolerate the pastor’s ugly attitude, even if her money is good, is beyond me.

    • @RizzoTees I did mention that the pastor said she left a cash tip in the blog post, but I searched and searched and couldn’t find anyone who could confirm it. What I found was that she said she left $6 in cash, which was less than the 18% tip.
      Regardless, my point is not about the waitress being fired or about not tipping someone. It’s about how this was handled in the middle of the night and how it became a crisis because of the mismanagement. So often this stuff can be avoided, but the person behind the Applebee’s avatar just added fuel to the fire.

  • Sorry, I know I a supposed to be for the underdog here, but I stand by my premise the waitress should have been fired. For one reason alone, stupidity. We all know reddit people love to blow stuff out of proportion except when they thought it was ok to post kiddie porn and pictures of women without their permission, but I digress. The customer belongs to Applebee’s, not the employee. She had no right to even copy or take the receipt from the premises let alone post someone’s name, whose address, phone number, etc have been made public for people to harass her. She would be suing if the shoe was on the other foot. Applebee’s did not handle this well but should have said we don’t discuss employee issues. So the waitress has fans, but have any of the given her a job? I doubt it because underneath everyone knows it could have been them. Finally,by taking the receipt which thankfully did not have the credit card number it as some old style ones do,she could have done much more harm. Ok, really last point. This is a story which has been blown out of proportion over what less than $7. Hmmm

    • @delwilliams As I said in the blog post, I don’t disagree the waitress should have been fired. In fact, if it’s against their policy to post things like that publicly, then by all means, she should have been fired (and so should the guy who posted the good feedback that shows the customer’s name). What I don’t agree with is how this was all handled – the 3 a.m. arguing and tagging and copying and pasting and the complete mismanagement of the Facebook page that is the story.

      • @ginidietrich I agree they dropped the ball big time but trust me Ina week no one even thinking about it. Thankfully we live in an ADD society 🙂 . As for the posting with names thing, Gini,you KNOW the difference between the two. One was testimonial and he other was meant to harass, again, a BIG difference. Put differently, if Isolde you a bike and you lived it and I posted it on my page or made it prominent, no harm, but if I post your name as so done who ran me over with your bike in a place full of people living in their parents basement who have nothing better to donut look up your address, phone, email, etc. post it to other loney people who become outraged that you ran me over, trust me, I know you are going to get threats, harassed, and more. But again, Applebee’s did handle this poorly.,

        • @delwilliams  Yeah, it’s not my place to comment on their policy. In fact, if I had written that good note, I would have been angry that they had posted my name with it, especially without my permission, so I do think both cases should be weighted equally. But this here is a PR blog so we talk about the PR side of things without letting our feelings on the HR cloud our thinking.

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  • CommProSuzi

    If the pastor wanted a response, she sure got one.  Here are my observations for what they’re worth: A. Clearly, businesses need to teach their employees some basic communications principles. Smart business owners will teach their teams:      1 –  When you post something that mentions your business, yours or your employers, you need to preface what you’re about to write with “I speak on the behalf of my entire organization when I write/post/say…”  If you even THINK the company will have an issue with it,  discuss it with your superior. Get that alternative view.      2 – “Just because you CAN do something, SHOULD you do it?”  What will it gain?   B. Posting the receipt seemed to cross the line. Did it benefit ANYONE? What’s the UP side of publicly humiliating the pastor by posting her note — regardless of how inappropriate it might be. C. This wasn’t the server’s battle. It was the franchisee’s. The franchise made the call to include a “suggested tip” on the receipt.  First, the pastor directed her ire at the wrong person. Second, the server took the complaint to the wrong person. 
    D. The Social Media Team: Instead of taking on all comers, what about taking it internally and issuing a blanket statement thanking people for bringing this to their attention, explaining that they are reviewing their current policies and educating their staffs on more appropriate uses for social media?  It’s likely that Applebee’s Corporate’s hands are tied thanks in part to their Franchise Disclosure Document, i.e. agreement with the franchisee, and the bulk of this is in the franchisee’s court. But, why in the middle of the night when it’s not BREAKING news, e.g. an explosion, an accident, is beyond me.

    • @CommProSuzi I really do think (I have nothing to base  this on other than watching it blow up) the person behind the avatar had a few drinks on Friday night, got back on Facebook, and went to town. I don’t think there was any malicious intent and I really do think he/she thought this was the best course of action. Oy.

      • CommProSuzi

        @ginidietrich Who among us wouldn’t have done that if we had social media then? Then again, “social media” were smoke signals when I broke into the business.

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  • I only followed this from a distance, but the original post that I saw included the full name of the pastor, and in my mind, yes, she should have been fired for that. I spent many years serving and have worked in 17 restaurants world wide. I have had this BS “I am giving your tip to god” happen many times, but never, NEVER , did I disclose the customer’s name, even privately to a friend. Love this line, G- Just because someone uses social media really well, does not a communication expert them make.

    • @RebeccaTodd I don’t disagree the waitress should have been fired. The reason this is such a good case study is in how Applebee’s handled the criticism. How hard is it to say, “This is our policy and, while it sucks she wasn’t tipped, we have to maintain our guest’s privacy.” And then when they dug up the other photo that showed the good feedback and that guest’s name, they had to be prepared to make the same decision. You can’t have it both ways.

      • @ginidietrich Ahh yes agreed! They certainly bungled the communications on this one.

      • ltcassociates

        @ginidietrich  @RebeccaTodd You can have it both ways by redacting names (see @ltcassociates’s comment below.)
        Our site features testimonials, and even in that case, to maintain the privacy of our clients (whose permission we always obtain, and have on file), we protect their identities (eg “Jane H., Seattle”). As I wrote, I’m not at all convinced the effect the waitress’s friend sought to achieve would have been lessened by taking this approach. I still don’t know who the pastor is– nor do I care– but I know what the furor is about. She made her point, whether I know the man’s identity or not.
        As well, do we know how this has played out in “Old Media”? (see @ltcassociates comment below.) To me, it wasn’t a question of HOW Applebee’s handled the criticism, but WHEN. Had they waited 24 – 48 hours, no response may have even been necessary. The world very well may have moved on. Reddit certainly would have…

        • @ltcassociates  @ginidietrich Some fair points here. Testimonials do usually solicit the approval of the person first, as you mentioned.  I can not speak to whether Applebees had permission for  posting those positive comments. 
          I read your comments below, and agree with most of what you say…sort of. Should businesses be on Facebook? I’m not sure. I am not really sure anyone belongs on Face, but now I run the risk of getting Howie-ish. That being said, some businesses, like Arment Dietrich, do a great job with their FB pages and drive many positive interactions through it. The flip side of this being- is ignorance bliss? There would have been uproar on FB whether or not Applebees was there to witness it.
          But, we don’t see eye to eye on your post about “Old Media”. Old is right- beyond my father, who reads a print paper these days? I consider myself to be quite well informed, and all of my news gathering occurs on Twitter, the dreaded Face, and blogs like this or TL;DR. So who cares if it only warranted one paragraph on page 26 (or whatever your example stated- I understand you were not referencing this particular incident) – I saw literally hundreds of posts about this through my sources. So thinking you “survived” a crisis by ignoring what is actually being said by the populous is probably not a solid communication plan, either.

        • ltcassociates

          @RebeccaTodd  @ginidietrich 
          Total print circulation of the Top 25 US Newspapers (as of 9/12): a little over 9.2M
          Total daily viewers of Primtetime Cable news (FNC, MSNBC, CNN, and HLN taken 2/5/13): just shy of 1.9M
          I forget what the psychological effect is called (sorry!) but I think it’s in play here, where because *we* are on social media, and play here a good part of the day, we tend to assume the world now rotates around this axis as well.
          The fact that 36,000 people have commented on a Facebook page, or that you saw a few hundred posts, or that 33 individuals are following this thread, just doesn’t compare to the 12,000,000 who might’ve seen the Applebee’s story break on Old Media.
          The story grow disproportionately large because of the gasoline Applebee’s poured. Does anyone disagree with *that* statement? Likewise, until I see @ginidietrich sales numbers, I expect a full corporate recovery. Patrons have already returned and are now tipping 28% (“I don’t pay God, so here’s 18%, plus an extra 10”)

        • @ltcassociates  @ginidietrich If 36, 000 people were inspired to comment, how many actually saw it? Considering there are more than a billion active users on Facebook, I’m going to say that is much, much, much greater than your newspaper and tv news stats combined (12 million vs over a billion). So it isn’t my perception that more people are active in social, it is a fact.

        • jenzings

          @ltcassociates  @RebeccaTodd  @ginidietrich I think the psychological effect is called confirmation bias. And yes, it does factor in here.
          What I find astonishing is that Applebee’s doesn’t appear to have seen this coming. Rule #1 about the Internet: it hates a hypocrite. The *second* they found out that the pastor’s note was posted, they should have been figuring out if it would be advisable to fire the server or just put her on dishwashing duty for 6 months. Did she violate policy? Clearly she did. But the firing added fuel to this controversy. Demotion wouldn’t have sustained the same level of ‘Net ire. Were they in the right to fire her? Of course. But they should have planned for the backlash.
          Rule #2 about the Internet: they can sense blood in the water quickly. If a company doesn’t immediately appear to understand the Internet (see #1), they are going to get piled on.The repeated postings of company policy seemed awkward and a bit tone-deaf.
          Rule #3 about the Internet: they value the underdog, who in this case are the servers who work for low pay, and they rely on tips.
          There are a number of lessons in this somewhat minor debacle. But I don’t think this was confined to social media (I saw the story on CNN, which was repeated several times, it was a Jeanne Moos story). Will it destroy Applebee’s? Of course not. But will it affect them? Maybe.

        • ltcassociates

          @RebeccaTodd  @ginidietrich Good morning Rebecca: I like where you’re going with this post– I like your thought process. It’s a fair rebuttal. I do concede your point about total numbers : ) /bows down
          Is this a story outside the United States? Not sure, hard to tell. I’ll grant that Applebee’s does have international locations, but if we grant that this story is primarily a US phenom, then it’s more apropos to use US Facebook users, of which there are not 1B, but 167M (source:
          Of those, let’s remember that not 100% are active, but slightly just over 50% (source:
          Of these remaining 84M, let’s recall that approx. 1 out of 10 are fake (by FB’s own admission, source: ).
          Finally, of the remaining 76M active US users, let’s remember that 90% of FB’s traffic is insular and comes from, and circulates, within Facebook. Only 10% of all Facebook traffic comes from outside Facebook. It’s a closed loop. (source:
          Is there some overlap between this group who would be compelled to comment on the Applebee’s story and those who actually eat there? And is it enough to move the dial? We shall see…

        • @ltcassociates  @ginidietrich Ahh excellent break down of the “real” numbers on FB. I just did a quick glance. To respond, is this a story outside of the US? I am outside of the US, and saw all sorts of my friends from all over the world discussing it. So in terms of sheer numbers of eyes on the story, this was indeed global. As to the closed loop aspect- I will buy that partially, but as we are not on FB right now and are discussing this for the third day running, I will say that the idea that anything that is said on FB stays within FB is fairly inaccurate. While a lot of the uproar in thes circumstance has been FB based, clearly it has also entered the real world.
          Now as to your last point- will this actually change anything for Applebees? I say no chance. As @jenzings brought up, people just LOVE to jump on board and point out when someone else is doing it wrong. The week before this, a bunch of people were outraged because a certain chain of restaurants (but indeed this policy to extends to all restaurants globally, to my knowledge) because restaurants do not pay for sick days, and therefore should be boycotted as germ factories. Next week, some other brand will say something else and the interwebz will unite in furious anger. And that too shall pass. 
          What I like about Gini’s original post was removing the idea of whether or not Applebees should have fired the employee (by my standards- yes they would have. I would have done the same) but how they responded to the uproar. And I believe that however we measure this, we al agree they did that part very badly. 
          Thank you all for engaging me in some good debate and pushing back on my thinking! G knows how much I love an intelligent debate- part of why I love hanging out here at Spin Sucks!

        • ltcassociates

          @jenzings  I like your Rules, they’re solid. I *suspect* that the story leaped from the web to the “real” world of CNN (and probably others) only because cable & primetime news now get their oddball stories from the pages of FARK, Gawker, Reddit, StumbleUpon, Wired, you named it… (Drew Curtis has written about this phenomenon).
          I won’t keep beating this dead horse, but I can’t help thinking Applebee’s is a culprit in keeping the story alive long enough for it to make that very leap.

        • ltcassociates

          @RebeccaTodd  @ginidietrich  @jenzings In that case, we can all move on. Where shall we go next? “I’m thinking _________.”
          I have to say though… I laughed when you pointed out (in re to my point about FB being a closed loop) that WE are discussing the Applebee’s story on SpinSucks for the 3rd day, my goodness HOW did I walk right into that (!)

        • @ltcassociates  @jenzings Exactly! I am thinking that the whole “any press is good press” thing means that they are just as happy to “raise brand awareness” or whatever other buzzwords I can throw at this.

        • @ltcassociates  And yes- When I do decide to flip on the news-  CNN or national, or while I was in Aus- it seems that the “journalists” are simply reading me stories I already saw online. Thanks, guys!

        • @ltcassociates  Heh. I couldn’t resist pointing that one out…but thanks for the backup data about FB “users” vs what would be valid to this story. I really do not care much for the Face, nor the inflated numbers that go with it.

  • Oy Vey… I am glad I missed this fiasco because I’d have been tempted to pile on.  But they let my kids eat free on Tuesday’s so it would’ve been tough. They say jobs in social media are tough and I see why, it requires some common sense!

    • @TonyBennett …which just ain’t so common, these days.

  • Interesting piece at Restaurant News about the deeper actions Applebee’s were taking:

    • ltcassociates

      @Danny Brown According to the Applebee’s PR man, their response was 2-fold:
      1) To provide the public with the facts
      2) To listen to and respond to as many guests as possible: “The over-arching piece in this is we want to hear from people”
      In terms of those 2 criteria, would you say Mission Accomplished? Does Applebee’s get an A?

      • @ltcassociates Does any brand truly get an A? However, what this does show (present company excluded) is the social media trollism that seems rampant the nano-second a brand comes into the spotlight for the wrong reasons.

        • @Danny Brown  @ltcassociates What they did wrong was not have proper training on HOW to handle a PR crises – arguing incessantly with critics doesn’t work.  Apologizing repeatedly would have…     Stating that they have very clear policies would have had more integrity if they hadn’t put up that post earlier.
          I actually won’t stop going to Applebees because of this, but I will use it as a case study for clients.

        • ltcassociates

          @Danny Brown Well-said, Danny.
          As an aside, my wife and I have a rule when editing each other’s work: we (jokingly) never give one another an A+, since “you always need something to strive for.”

        • ltcassociates

          @AmyMccTobin  Re: “Apologizing repeatedly”
          In trying in vain to find the original blog about the company who waited for their whole crisis to blow over (still haven’t found it), I stumbled upon “8 Steps to Manage a Social Media Crisis”, which I rather liked []
          Although “Be Sorry” is listed among his advice, I found something more memorable:
          “Remember the rule of 3. Never send a third reply. A third reply is an argument, not an answer.”

        • @ltcassociates I did not mean apologize repeatedly to one person, but answering the complaints does help.  Do you remember how FedEx handled their PR problem? They turned it into a plus.  Applebees, on the other hand, acted childish… and didn’t have the integrity to stand on in the first place, having posted a customer’s positive writing WITH name only weeks earlier.This is how it’s done:

        • ltcassociates

          @AmyMccTobin @ginidietrich Wow, I’m glad you linked me to that story of Gini’s about Fedex, cause I wasn’t aware of it, and I hadn’t intended to bring LTCA’s own example of Fedex into this thread… but you just gave me a segue too precious to ignore.
          In Gini’s post, she writes, “They did NOT ignore the video. They did NOT ignore the crisis. They did NOT stick their heads in the sand and pretend the video (that now has nine million views) doesn’t exist.”
          Let’s return to LTCA’s example. We (like hundreds of over small businesses across America– between 1 – 99 employees) applied for a Fedex Small Business Grant, ranging up to $50k for the Grand Prize Winner).
          As soon as I realized their Offical Rules contained 2 clauses in *direct* contradiction to one another (in the all-important judging criteria) I posted this on their Facebook Page (where you are directed).
          All kinds of customers come there with their complaints, which are typically resolved within hours by “FedexBecky” or “FedexJohn”. When I politely brought this very serious matter to their attention over an issue affecting approx. $100,000 in grants, how did they respond?
          They “hid” my post and never replied.
          Several weeks later I tried again, and received a one-liner type form reply referring me back to the Rules Page (obviously the person hadn’t read my email).
          I wrote back with a “walk away” type letter. I don’t have time for this. We’d already decided we were going to donate any and all prize money to the Alzheimer’s Association, so “winning” per se didn’t matter for us. We were “playing for someone else”. I simply told Fedex that they needed to fix their rules for next year’s contest, but I didn’t want sound like sour grapes for any of my colleagues who I’m sure would be deserving winners.
          We’ve run dozens of promotions and incentives for our producers over the years, and I’m typically the guy who writes the legalese. Whoever Fedex’s Compliance Dept was, botched this one, and the company ducked it.
          As I wrote in our essay, we were fans of FedEx (we literally pioneered a new way of transacting insurance by using their products), but now I view them as a cowardly company, and an example of how NOT to use social media to solve problems.

        • @ltcassociates  @ginidietrich I have to say that yes, I’m a big advocate of NEVER deleting social comments (unless they’re vulgar or threatening), but I wouldn’t hold FedEx over the fire for your example, especially if you didn’t go up the pole a bit to mgt.  ALL companies make customer service mistakes;  they’re handling of the issue in Gini’s post came from the top, and it was excellent.
          I have to ask you: what was the tone of your email?  Your responses here are a bit ‘preachy;’  that may have effected how they responded.

        • ltcassociates

          @AmyMccTobin  What was the tone of my email to FedEx?
          (I literally laughed when I got to that part of your email, Amy. As soon as I hit “Post” on my comment up above, I thought, “That came off a little hot, didn’t it?”)
          But it’s not just that one comment: you’re right, I always think we tend to be 110% of our personalities online (warts and all). I think I described myself to one of my editors recently, “Nice guy offline, kind of a prick online.” Don’t know how that evolved but I definitely need to work on it if it’s becoming *that* noticeable. Yikes!
          If you care to read the original FedEx post, I found it here, and you can be the judge (jury, and executioner):
          / not ordained

        • Well that was a refreshingly honest answer.  I try to be EXTRA careful and EXTRA polite in email or on here because it’s so easy to read intonation into a post based on what WE’RE feeling.As Danny says, no company ever gets an A, but I think Fed Ex handled the video superbly.

  • Wow, second place I read a blog post about this story – and both blog posts were excellent, of course. Biggest point: You can’t prevent it, but you CAN manage it!

  • zilinliang

    Hi, everyone, I am a student at Syracuse University studying Social Media Theory & Practice with dr4ward I study PR and retail, and the first thing that both emphasize in school is customer comes first. Hear out your customer/audience/target market/what have you, and you are more likely to be successful. This whole controversy could’ve been avoided had Applebee’s utilized better training for its staff to ensure customers never leave the premises feeling unsatisfied, whether it be the service or the percent required for tip. By not having open communication with customers who actually enter their establishments, the company now has a greater problem of ‘open communication’ with the rest of the Internet.

    • @zilinliang @dr4ward
      I agree that companies should strive for customer satisfaction, but in this instance the customer committed a “hit and run”, leaving a pithy or snarky comment on a receipt rather than asking to speak to a manager. How would you suggest they handle this rather cowardly behavior?

      • zilinliang

        @Suzi_C    I agree and that’s difficult to draw out of certain patrons. In service environments, customers may feel uncomfortable speaking out or asking questions because the environment is not conducive to open communication. I would advise management to train its employees to encourage open communication with customers. In my personal experience at Applebee’s and most chain restaurants, employees rush past in a hurry, “You doing okay?” as opposed to a full stop (imagine rolling stop at stop signs, haha) and making eye contact with everyone at the table to show I have their full attention. Speaking slower with deliberation seemed to elicit more conversation, which eventually would lead to voicing any concerns customers may have. This applies in retail stores as well, which is the only retail environment I have personal employment experience with. When you slow down instead of rush, the customer you are interacting with is less likely to feel they are somehow getting in your way of what you’re doing.

        • @zilinliang Thanks, but you will still have the hit & run customer, like this person. How do you suggest this person, who is grousing over the amount of tip in a note left behind, be addressed?
          The patron was too cowardly to tell management. The patron apparently did leave a tip and did receive good service. The person is grousing over the 18% tip.

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