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Applebee’s Social Media Crisis: Should The Waitress Have Been Fired?

05 Feb

Applebee’s found themselves in a lot of social media heat last week when a waitress posted the below picture to Reddit (Note: the original picture posted showed the customer’s full, readable signature):


Picture credit:

However, the heat didn’t come down upon Applebee’s until the Pastor, who was embarrassed by the fact that her words were going viral online, called the fast food chain and demanded that the waitress (and, gasp, everyone else on duty that day) be fired.

When Applebee’s complied and terminated the waitress’s job, the wrath of social media and the public was quick to come down on the brand – and hard.

With thousands upon thousands of negative comments flooding in, here’s a (very) small taste of what Applebee’s has been experiencing on their Facebook page alone:


As you can clearly see, the attacks on Applebee’s is due to their decision to fire the waitress, which leads us all to contemplate the following:

Should Applebee’s have fired the waitress?

True: The waitress violated the customer’s right to privacy, and this “right to privacy” is clearly outlined within Applebee’s hand book, as stated within their (weak) initial response to the crisis on Facebook:

“When she was hired, the team member was provided the franchisee’s employee hand book which includes their social media policy and states: Employees must honor the privacy rights of APPLEBEE’s and its employees by seeking permission before writing about or displaying internal APPLEBEE’S happenings that might be considered to be a breach of privacy and confidentiality. This shall include, but not be limited to, posting of photographs, video, or audio of APPLEBEE’S employees or its customers, suppliers, agents or competitors, without first obtaining written approval from the Vice President of Operations. The policy goes on to specify: Employees who violate this policy will be subject to disciplinary action, up to and including termination of employment.”

Therefore, the waitress, according to the franchise, was clearly aware of the potential repercussions of her actions.

Rebuttal #1: Many are arguing that the Pastor clearly wanted her words to be seen as she wrote them plainly and added the word “Pastor” above her signature.

Rebuttal #2: Apparently Applebee’s violated this same “right to privacy” rule just a short while ago when they themselves published the following image to their social network:

applebees-hypocritical-postImage credit: If you can’t afford to tip, you can’t afford to go out and eat!

One also has to consider the decision of firing the employee as an “example to be made”. Professionals who deal with the public on a regular basis have to understand where to draw the social and online lines. You can’t just post the confidential information of a customer every time you are upset by a situation. However, this example would have been better-made had Applebee’s NOT done this exact same thing themselves. Albeit that their posting was of a positive situation, but these sorts of policies cannot have hypocritical standards.

The court of public opinion

As is said often in crisis management situations, there are two courts to consider: the court of law (which Applebee’s is technically protected under due to their clearly stated rules and guidelines within their hand book), and the court of public opinion. Unfortunately due to Applebee’s poor decision making, they are being prosecuted – and losing – in the court of public opinion.

So, should the waitress have been fired?

With all of the above in consideration, and mainly two very heavy aspects of this particular scenario in mind:

  1. Applebee’s hypocrisy
  2. The court of public opinion

Applebee’s would have been much better to announce that the waitress had made a mistake, but although they themselves have not been leading by good example, that they would be reviewing the situation, reevaluating their social media policies and making sure that this type of situation would not happen again, on any front. They should have then included that their customers’ confidentiality is of high importance and that the waitress has been given a warning, apologizes and promises not to take such actions again. They then could have completed this statement with a line on how their servers are valued by the Applebee’s brand and deserve to be treated better than the note left on the table suggests.

Had Applebee’s taken this approach to managing the situation, they would have been regarded as a brand with excellent crisis communications skills and it all would have ended there. Unfortunately, this is not the case and Applebee’s has been drowning themselves in poor decision after poor response for the past few days. For more on Applebee’s many social media crisis communications #fails during this incident, read this article.

What to take away and learn from Applebee’s social media crisis

Lessons for brands:

  • Applebee’s is not the first restaurant to face the wrath of social media for one reason or another. Restaurants, and any brand that deals with the public on a B2C level, have a whole set of risks that need to be assessed and prepared for in advance. If your brand is a B2C and you don’t currently have a strong crisis management plan in-place, than this is something that needs to go to the top of your to-do list, a.s.a.p.
  • Understand and evaluate both the court of law and the court of public opinion before you release your statements and take action in a crisis. Weigh these risks out and evaluate them with your brand’s policies, brand-promise, ethics and voice in-mind. Play devil’s advocate and make sure you are fully aware of the potential repercussions of your actions and reactions in a crisis.

Lesson for individuals and employees:

  • Things go viral. Especially interesting, relatable and emotional things. Remember this before you post or publish content to the web. The Applebee’s waitress was quoted saying: “I originally posted the note as a lighthearted joke… I thought the note was insulting, but it was also comical. I posted it to Reddit because I thought other users would find it entertaining.” With all the examples we see take shape online on a regular basis, this waitress should have been more aware of the potential repercussions of her actions. Don’t make her mistake.

That said, it’s important to note that: had she taken care not to reveal the Pastor’s name / signature, this would have been a completely different story. (The image of the bill seen above does not reveal the Pastor’s signature. This is not the original image that was posted to Reddit, it’s a cropped version.) Had the waitress chosen to crop out the signature immediately before posting it to the web, she would be finding herself in a very different situation today.

Lots of lessons and learning opportunities can be taken from other companies’ social media crises and issues. For a list of other social media crises to learn from, visit this page.

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12 Responses to “Applebee’s Social Media Crisis: Should The Waitress Have Been Fired?”

  1. Ike February 5, 2013 at 11:14 am #

    Melissa, one aspect I'd like more people to know about is the "deletion of comments" accusations.

    I run a brand page, and I see a lot of people who post the same thing two or three times, assuming that we deleted the post. It's there, just under the "Posts by Others" tab.

    When it's just an individual complaint, it's not that big a deal. But when you have a storm brewing, and users start making They're Deleting! accusations, there is no way to win. No one has the bandwidth to overcome that.

    I'm not going to defend any of the other peculiar aspects of Applebee's position or posts, but brands need to be aware that there will be a component of these social media storms that they just cannot control or prevent.

    • Melissa Agnes February 5, 2013 at 3:15 pm #

      "[...] brands need to be aware that there will be a component of these social media storms that they just cannot control or prevent." – Absolutely. Excellent point, Ike!

      As for your "deleting posts" comment, it's always a good strategy to have a section in your "About" section on Facebook that says you do not delete comments (unless they are of an unacceptable nature, which you clearly define) and to let your fans know where to find the comments that they leave. This way, it's there for everyone to see, and for you to refer people to if/when need-be.

      Thanks for weighing in, Ike!

  2. Dave Zan February 6, 2013 at 3:35 am #

    First thing I thought of after reading this story is FedEx. I read lots of people demanding FedEx fire that employee, but they didn't do so, explained why and what to do after, and stood their ground while remaining respectful for the most part.

    That's at least one essentially similar example Applebee's can draw from.

    • Melissa Agnes February 6, 2013 at 11:36 am #

      Good point and example to bring up, Dave. Thanks! Although I doubt that FedEx would have had as much backlash had they fired the employee. But it's always nice to see companies taking care of their employees AND their brand reputation, rather than only looking to do the latter.

  3. Ben February 6, 2013 at 4:49 am #

    "The court of pubic opinion" caught my eye.
    Does this also qualify as a communications #fail?

    • Melissa Agnes February 6, 2013 at 11:37 am #

      Does the court of public opinion qualify as a communications fail? No.
      Does the entire Applebee's situation qualify as one? 110% absolutely, yes!

      • Ben February 6, 2013 at 5:33 pm #

        I was referring to the typo in "pubic"

        • Melissa Agnes February 6, 2013 at 5:43 pm #

          Haha! Thanks for catching that one, Ben! #FeelingFoolish
          And no, I wouldn't say it counts as a total communications fail… :P

  4. Duncan Matheson February 7, 2013 at 11:26 am #

    Great post Melissa. Another way in which Applebee's failed was that in their response to the pastor, which they posted, they talked about how much they value their customers, with no reference to any such value for their employees. Companies need to realize their is more than one stakeholder group reading their posts. They were apparently thinking customers only, not employees. So , in effect, they sent a signal to their thousands of employees that they are secondary and/or of little value. That's quite a tone to set with your first line ambassadors.

    This isn't to say you don't recognize the unacceptable breach of protocol in posting the photo of the credit bill receipt, but as you undoubtedly know very well, it's all in how you word these things. You have to consider ALL the stakeholder groups who will be seeing it.

    • Melissa Agnes February 7, 2013 at 11:31 am #

      Excellent point, Duncan! Applebee's realized the error of their words in another update where they decided to mention their serving staff, but it wasn't a strong enough message to be believable by their already-upset audience.

      So many communications fails in the way they handled this online incident. So many.

      Hopefully other companies will be smart enough to use this as a learning reference. In 2013, there's no reason or excuse for this type of crisis management fail. None.

  5. andreas andreou June 15, 2013 at 3:24 pm #

    Hi Melissa,
    this crisis could easy avoided.Any fired must have the right excuses.This excuses is not enough in this case.Many times companies think that could handle everything easy such this case,and in the end avoid or misplace the case.


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