How Should Applebee’s Respond to Its Ongoing PR Crisis?

In case you haven’t heard, quite a few people on the Internet are upset at Applebee’s right now for its actions in the tale of the obnoxiously self-righteous customer. After the story blew up, the company went strangely silent on social media, but on Friday its PR team got pro-active, releasing an official statement from the company president and choosing Facebook as the best forum in which to respond.

There’s a reason for this: Ad Week recently named Applebee’s as the most “socially devoted” restaurant brand on Facebook. But this story has proven to be its greatest social media challenge: “What’s the Buzz”, a homepage feature showcasing tweets about the brand in real-time, has been overwhelmingly negative for the past few days.

The new damage control effort began with this post:

The message goes on to clarify that the fired server violated company policy by publicly sharing a receipt on which the customer’s name was visible, thereby compromising her privacy (they added that the customer’s party did in fact pay the 18% gratuity required). Since then, the post has inspired almost 25,000 comments.

This crisis is not over.

The company’s message so far amounts to: “We’re sorry this happened, but we did what we could and our hands are tied”. The social media team tried to let fans and detractors alike know that Applebee’s is paying attention to the complaints:

Later that same day, the social media team posted another message in response to those who accused the company of failing to “stand up for” its employees and appreciate the hard work they do by assuring followers that “this unfortunate situation has nothing to do with work.”

Some then pointed out that a Missouri Applebee’s may have violated the company’s own policy by posting this image of a customer’s complimentary note. This fact is irrelevant as long as the employee who shared the pic asked the customer and the VP of operations for permission, but Applebee’s reportedly responded by removing it from the page. Not a good sign.

The problem got deeper still: Facebook users accused the Applebee’s page’s manager of deleting their negative comments and replying to complaints by re-posting the original message–at 3 AM. Neither of these actions are good social media etiquette.

We don’t envy Applebee’s in this situation, and we have to agree that rehiring an employee who clearly violated company policy is not a good idea no matter how obnoxious the customer was. Still, we wonder: how could the company’s team have weathered this storm a little more comfortably? What should they do now to quiet the outrage?

Let us know: WWCCSD (What would a crisis communications specialist do)?