In 2013, Applebees was pushed into the public spotlight over a photo of a note left on a receipt by a customer with a legible signature.
The note reads “I give God 10% why do you get 18%?” What makes this situation so controversial is that this was not just a random person, this was a respected pastor at a church in St. Louis, MO named Alois Bell.
A co-worker of the waitress working the table, Chelsea Welch, saw the note and found it so comical she shared it to Reddit. The post quickly went viral causing backlash and lead to Welch’s firing.
One side was angered for the waitress and that she did not get a tip and was fired while the second side found that it was awful that the customer’s privacy was breached. This lead to the waitress being fired by Applebees for violating a customer’s privacy. The video below helps show the tension caused by the differing opinions of the public.
Applebee’s responded to this issue following their already written legal guidelines, that each employee agreed to upon being hired…so why did Applebee’s receive so much backlash? Well there are a few key pointers Applebees missed that makes this 2013 PR case such a good lesson.
We all know social media spreads news quickly. This means dialogue on social media begins just as quickly as the news is reported on. Applebee’s lacked understanding of how to respond to the negative commentary online and instead of helping to calm the fire their slow response fueled it and caused them to appear incompetent in using it.
Lack of Consistency:
Applebee’s first response to the growing controversy began with the statement of “we wish this didn’t happen.” Such a statement does nothing to disarm the situation. After this statement was made people became even more angered.
Responses rolled in and Applebee’s deleted comments, replied to comments with the exact same statement, and did all of this throughout the night of February 2, 2013. You can look at a complete timeline of the social media fiasco here.
The key takeaways of this meltdown are that Applebee’s denied the situation, did not take ownership of it, and did not commit to what they posted (they deleted and blocked certain posts).
If Applebee’s had reacted professionally and uniformly to this situation, the public may have eventually respected it. In the end they were tied to their legal contract that protects all customer’s privacy. Bell did mess up and her note was rude, but that does not take away the fact that all servers at Applebee’s are legally forbidden to reveal the name of customer’s publicly.
Next time Applebee’s needs to make sure they stick with one professional stance and that this stance is echoed in all of their communication on any platform.
This situation did not ruin Applebee’s but it is still a scar in the brand that could have been avoided. In PR, one must always create a plan and stick by it unwaveringly throughout the crisis.
Thanks for joining me!