Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Social Media Disaster: The Applebees Restaurant Perfect Storm

You might have heard about this, or read about it.  There are a lot of lessons to be learned.  Here’s what happened, and how it blew up too big, too quickly, for everyone involved.

A pastor was having dinner out with some friends at an Applebees restaurant.  Per the restaurant’s policies, whenever there’s a part of so many people, the tip is automatically added into the ticket.  The pastor was a bit frustrated by that policy, or maybe by the percentage that was added in (18%), and wrote a note on the ticket that said, “I give God 10%, why should you get 18?”  In spite of the comment, the pastor did pay the gratuity.

The waitress who served the pastor brushed off the comment, but showed it to her co-worker, who got upset by it and took a picture of it with her cell phone, and posted it to a social media site.

It went viral, and the pastor was embarrassed to find her comment all over the ‘net.  She was even more startled that her signature on the ticket was plainly visible, and was going viral along with the picture.  She called and complained to the management of the Applebees.

The Applebees management was caught in a bind.  The second waitress, in posting the picture with the signature and other personal information on the ticket, had violated the company policy on guest privacy.  They fired the waitress.

The ‘net went crazy.  Or, crazier, I should say, with facebook pages and petitions to re-instate the waitress along with hatemail to the pastor and threats of boycotts to Applebees.

Here is a report on the story:

Here are some things to learn from this experience.

1 - There were no winners.  Nobody came out on top.  Applebees is reeling from a big hit to their corporate PR, the waitress is out of work in a recession, and the pastor is hurting from the backlash of a momentary lapse of her christian goodwill.

2 - The two acts that sparked this media wildfire, the waves that added up to this perfect storm, were simple, relatively innocuous acts.  The snarky comment on the restaurant ticket is something that we’ve all probably thought from time to time, when paying for a meal.  Finding something quirky or funny and posting a picture of it is not that big of a deal, either, right?

3 - A teenage friend of mine once asked me why people he didn’t know were seeing his “private Facebook posts”.  I explained to him that it’s a SOCIAL network, and there is no such thing as a “private post”.  If you want something to be private on Facebook, don’t post it on Facebook.  The bigger lesson is:  Be very careful what you post online.

4 - An extension of that is to never - NEVER - N  E  V  E  R  R  R  R - post something about your job.  Don’t complain about your job, don’t vent about your job, don’t do it.  If you post it, your boss can find it.

5 - Most companies don’t know how to handle the masses on social networking.  I’m not sure there was any clean and easy way for Applebees to get out of this one and to turn it around, but the buzz on the ‘net has not been kind to them.  It reminds me of the “United Breaks Guitars” song that caused the airline so much headache.

6 - Neither Applebees nor the pastor nor the waitress had any idea that these actions would spiral out of control.  The waitress should have known, because she did, you know, post the picture to a, well, SOCIAL NETWORK.  But all this bad karma was unexpected.

I don’t mean to scare anyone away.  Facebook is a fun way to keep up with family and friends, and to be “in the loop” on what the world is talking about.  The big takeaway from all this, the Tip from Applebees is: social media is a tough animal to control.  Use it carefully.


Mark is currently employed as an Internet Business Coach.

Mark also has other sites and blogs, including Mark's Black Pot - Dutch Oven Recipes, and his MoBoy blog.