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Is your company’s Social Media Disaster Crisis Management Plan up to the task?

Dec 10 2015

[ToughProblem] Social Media Summer Series   Download to read offline

Image souce: https://www.flickr.com/photos/safari_vacation/7996585036/sizes/o/in/photostream/ under creative commons

When a staff member from a St Louis Applebee’s Bar and Grill posted a photo of a customer receipt to the Reddit photo sharing website, what should have been an internal Human Resources issue, blew out in a matter of days into what has come to be known as one of the most widely publicised public relations train wrecks in the history of the internet.

The customer, a pastor from a local church unhappy with the service had written, “I give God 10% why do you get 18%” above her signature.  Her signature and the comment were clearly displayed on the posted image.  When she discovered that the photo was going viral on the internet, she complained to Applebee’s management demanding that the staff member be sacked.

In response to the complaints Applebee’s sacked the staff member who had posted the photo, stating that she had violated company policy regarding customer privacy.

Now in a perfect world that would be the end of the matter, what happened in the days that followed however should be a timely warning to businesses everywhere.

On Friday the 1st of February, the company decided to post a status update to its Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/applebees/posts/10151390928154334, explaining that the staff member had violated company policy.

The internet’s response to this post came hard and fast with people pounding the company’s online twitter feeds and Facebook page with negative comments, while at the same time “Rehire Chelsea Welch” and “Boycott Applebee’s” groups began springing up on Facebook and other platforms.  The most telling of all, a Facebook photo posted by Applebee’s itself of another customer comment some weeks earlier that also clearly showed a signature, but was of course complementary.

By late Friday evening the company Facebook page had received over 20,000 largely uncomplimentary responses.  Yet there had been no further comments from the company itself.  To be fair to the company, when an Internet frenzy starts, unless you take control in a practical way it can be a beast to control.

However, instead of seeking to control the conversation in a practical way, at sometime after 2:00 am on Saturday morning Applebee’s staff started making comments in the original post, instead of making a formal comment in a new discussion post to control the conversation, and to make matters worse they deleted the photo of the complementary comment, and reportedly also started deleting negative comments.  The internet flared again with even greater fury.

As the evening ground on, the staff started further antagonising the internet by spamming the Facebook feed with comments cut and pasted repeatedly and even, it has been reported, started arguments with other people commenting on the feed.

But the Applebee’s internet team were not quite done yet, the train wreck still had some miles to run.  At around 4:30am the company decided to finally make what has been regarded as a somewhat bland apology for the situation.  At which point they choose to hide the original post taking the thousands of negative comments with it.

The result, thousands of new negative comments posted all over their “Official response” calling them out for trying to hide the original conversation.

It took another 24 hours for the furore to settle down, during which time it has been estimated that in excess of 40,000 Facebook posts and similar numbers of Twitter posts decrying the actions of Applebee’s poured across the internet.  To make matters worse the main stream media also picked up on the story with major papers and television services running commentary, and in the fallout, one photo journal blog by R.L. Stollar received over a 1.4 million views from people following its coverage of the incident.

What is also ironic, is that although the customer had put a Zero amount in the tip line, they did actually leave a Six Dollar tip in cash on the table.

The Takeaway

The viral nature of the internet, and the passion and sometimes furore of its many patrons can be both a blessing and a curse to all businesses, and when things do start to go pear shaped, those traditionally slow 24 hour media news cycles can rapidly turn into a real-time disaster that of needs must be dealt with quickly, effectively and efficiently, and with a great deal of care.

As a result, it is of the uttermost importance in this modern socially connected world, that all businesses not only have clearly defined social media strategies for engagement and communication, but also have a practical and concise set of Social Media Disaster Management plans and policies.

By failing to respond quickly and effectively to an emerging online issue, Applebee’s lost control of the situation entirely, then continued to further fuel the internet frenzy with bland, possibly misleading and poorly thought out actions.  Actions, which instead of managing the situation, only exacerbated an already inflamed opinion of the company. 

O2 No Service ImageAn alternative outcome

When UK telecommunications carrier O2 suffered a major outage that literally took hundreds of thousands of its mobile, landline and broadband customers offline for up to 48 hours.  The company knew it was facing a PR nightmare.  Over the course of the first day of outages, it has been estimated that over 1.4 million twitter post were made by unhappy customers.

How O2 responded to this deluge of negative comments however took everyone completely by surprise, with wired.co.uk describing their actions as a "social media masterclass".

Instead of sticking to the tried and tested – post some stock standard regular updates and tell everyone to hang on approach - it realised early on that social media engagement and communication could be a vital key to assisting in managing the dissatisfaction of its customers.

O2 decided the best approach was to throw their customer management team onto twitter to engage with customers in a friendly and helpful way. 

Over the course of the next 24 hours they responded directly to comments and tweets from customers with practical, consistent, friendly and often even humorous comments.  By the end of the day the sentiment on twitter had turned from largely negative, to mostly understanding and supportive of what O2 were doing to handle the issue.

By facing the conversation head on, O2 was able to effectively control the message and handle the direction of opinions in a way that has traditionally never been thought possible.

What O2 demonstration is that Social Media used well can be a powerful tool for good when facing a business crisis.

Next Week

Over the course of this summer series, we will be examining the nature of social media and the impact it has on the corporate world.  We will be looking at best practices for social media governance and exploring strategies for social media management, along with the formation of plans for both engagement and disaster management.

In the next edition, we will look at the topic of Social Media Governance and the importance of guidelines and policies relating to both internal and external social media conversations within a company.


R. L. Stollar  - applebees-overnight-social-media-meltdown-a-photo-essay


Wired.co.uk  - a social media master class


 Image Credit:
https://www.flickr.com/photos/safari_vacation/7996585036/sizes/o/in/photostream/ under creative commons

Want to know more?
Wes Tatters is an internationally published author specialising in Internet and New Media technologies and an accomplished broadcast television professional. With over 30 years experience focused on technology, internet and broadcast television, he has a deep understanding of the emerging demands that Social Media place on companies.  He is the executive producer and a company director of Light Knights Entertainment - www.lightknights.com

To find out more about how [toughproblem] can assist you with your Social Media Governance and Management needs visit our Contact Us page.


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