What Applebee’s *Should* Have Said

It’s easy to Monday Morning Quarterback a PR or Social Media disaster.

It seems like our new favorite pastime, with a robust 2012 behind us and what looks like a great 2013 coming on. It’s hard, when you’re in the moment, to know what the right thing to do is, or what’s the right tone to take, or what specific tactical actions you’ll employ. But there’s one thing that’s always in fashion: stopping, thinking, getting your facts and message straight, and then moving forward in a clear, unified fashion.

Of course, we all know by now that that’s not what Applebee’s did. Instead, they turned what was already a bad situation into a total charlie-foxtrot, as documented so brilliantly in R.L. Stollar’s awesome photo essay which probably has about several hundred thousand views at this point.

So what should Applebee’s have done instead?

Before we get started, I’d like to thank my pal Brett Bell, a social media maven of no small ability, for starting the discussion and helping me focus my thoughts. He’s got a great blog and newsletter…you should check them out.

Here’s what I believe Applebee’s should have said, posted to their website, and linked to from all their relevant social accounts:

We have asked Ms. Chelsea Welch to come back to work for Applebee’s.

Ms. Welch was fired from Applebee’s for violating a corporate policy that we believe is very important. She obtained a receipt upon which a customer had written a comment and posted that receipt to a personal social media account, with an editorial comment. This was a violation of our customer’s privacy, and a violation of our policy. In the moment, Applebee’s believed firing Ms. Welch was the appropriate response to this violation.

However, upon review, we realized that we ourselves had violated our policy – previously, Applebee’s employees have posted receipts through our social media accounts that had comments of a positive nature.

This is inconsistent, and we have to own that inconsistency. We cannot hold our employees to two different standards. In light of this inconsistency, firing Ms. Welch was inappropriate, and we apologize.

We hope that by offering Ms. Welch her job back and being transparent about our inconsistency and our mistakes, we can begin to regain the trust and loyalty placed in us by our customers and employees.

We sincerely apologize to our customer whose receipt was posted and hope she is willing to allow us an opportunity to regain her trust and loyalty as well.

Our policy is in place to protect our customers’ privacy. No Applebee’s customer should ever have their personal information – such as a credit card number, their signature, even the list of what they had for dinner – made public. There are many ways that a customer who wishes to make a comment, positive or negative, to have their name attached to that comment without jeopardizing their personal privacy. Posting receipts in a public forum, such as social media accounts, is just not right, and we will not do that, or allow our employees to do that.

It’s clear that we at Applebee’s – including Ms. Welch – need to go back and review our policies, our training, and our operations, and find a better way to deal with our messaging in public, on the internet, and on social media.

Finally, we apologize to all of our customers, employees, and to shareholders of DineEquity, Inc. for any distress or alarm this incident may have caused. Our core mission is to unite great franchisees, brands and team members to create the world’s leading restaurant company, one guest experience at a time. We humbly ask our stakeholders to allow us to regain your trust, and stay with us as we continue to deliver on our mission.

Caveats and Afterthoughts:

1. I personally believe that Ms. Welch should have been fired, and, had there not been glaring inconsistencies widely available all over the internet, her firing would have been appropriate and just. Lesson? Get all your facts straight before you make a decision, especially when the situation has already gone very public. Otherwise…well, you look like Applebee’s does.

2. No one is likely to be able to quickly pull all the facts together, make the appropriate moral/ethical decisions, find the right strategy for the situation, or determine the tactics to be used and get in the field in smart, safe manner unless there’s a solid playbook created beforehand. Lesson? Plans are useless, but planning is priceless. Stop, think, plan, then act.

3. “Immediate damage control” does not mean “immediately run to the internet and start posting furiously in the hopes of making the situation better.” To get through a crisis, your social media operators, public relations counsel, legal counsel, and executive actors need to all be on the same page – and that’s not going to happen if everyone runs to their keyboards and starts typing away on every channel they can find.

4. Timing is the essence of comedy, they say. This Applebee’s incident proves that. Very rarely is it a good idea – or is there a good reason – for social media operators to hit the keyboard at 1 am, 3 am, 5 am to respond to individual posters, post statements in comment feeds, or even release a full statement. It can wait until right before the morning news.

5. Location, location, location. A corporate message belongs on the corporation’s primary owned media location. It can be summarized, shared, referenced, and linked back from social media channels (and should be) but it is exceedingly rare that a social channel alone (such as FB or Twitter) should be the residing place of a corporation’s formal statement on an issue like this.

5A. When it comes to engaging with “the internet mob” as Mr. Stollar names them, it’s NEVER a good idea to engage in one-on-one argument or refutation at an individual level. It’s one thing to acknowledge concern individually, demonstrate to the individual that you’re listening and intend to respond, but if you’re going to respond to an individual on a contentious issues, do not ever do so publicaly.

So there you have it.

I’d love to hear what you all think. There’s room for comments, rants, angry threats and name calling below!

Addendum / Update:

My pal Brett raised an interesting point in our discussion of this on Facebook. He pointed out that if the positive comment was posted with consent from the customer, did Applebee’s really violate their own policy? We’re they really being hypocritical in their firing of Ms. Welch?

It’s a good point. I believe that, if Applebee’s really is serious about protecting their customers’ privacy, even if they did have consent from that customer, they were in violation. There’s no good reason to put an image of someone’s signature on a completely public forum – anyone could capture that image and use it to nefarious ends. Applebee’s has a duty (ethically and morally, at least, if not legally) to protect that customer’s privacy by blurring at least part of the signature before posting the image online. They could always add a caption underneath with the customer’s name and city.

Leave a Comment

    • Brett Bell
    • February 6, 2013

    Thanks for the shoutout, Seth. I think this is some excellent advice. In many cases, the “digital mob” cannot be avoided. No one likes someone being fired, especially when the cause wasn’t exactly clear cut.

    It’s pretty clear from my read of it that there were too many corporate PR flacks involved and not enough strategy on dealing with something that, frankly, they should have known was coming.

    Maybe they should spend time reading articles like this to avoid another embarrassment.

  1. Reply

    Terrific post, Seth. I think you nailed the key issues; especially the importance of thinking before you act and the futility of arguing with an angry e-mob. Also, your “what they should have said” alternative replaced Applebee’s knee-jerk defensiveness with a transparent explanation and apology, which is great. No matter how logical, defensiveness never wins fans.

    In my own opinion, firing Ms. Welch was not the right thing to do. It was heavy-handed and not consistent with Applebee’s values as a compassionate, family restaurant. She has a family too, after all. She certainly screwed up, but a stern talking to would have been sufficient to prevent a recurrence. Since nobody was hurt and since her anger, if not her actions, were reasonable, I’d have stopped there.

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