01 February 2013

Applebee's and a Catch-22 of social media marketing

What happened to Applebee's on Facebook, Twitter and Reddit last week has been described with many metaphors: "implosion," "meltdown," "disaster" and others.

I liken it to the Battle of Little Bighorn that cost General Custer his life in 1876. However, Applebee's isn't going to "die," and the company is not a victim of its own hubris like Custer. But the "action" on the Facebook page may resemble the final hour of Custer's life: Thousands of current and former waiters "circling" the normally bland/cheerful corporate page, furiously pumping arrows and spears into every new post the company made in an attempt to explain its actions during the last week of January.

Slate coverage:
When Applebee’s tried to impose an automatic 18 percent tip last week on the bill of Atlanta pastor Alois Bell, she crossed it out, reduced the tip to zero, and added the note, “I give God 10%, why do you get 18?” A waitress posted the receipt online, earning Bell nationwide derision and the server a pink slip for violating Bell’s “right to privacy,” according to Applebee’s. Over the weekend, the restaurant chain suffered an avalanche of criticism. [Note: I neglected to include "avalanche" in my list of metaphors!]

No matter how Applebee's tried to explain itself, the criticism continued to snowball [that was my final metaphor].

Now I've helped manage content on a number of Facebook pages, ranging from my church to a $10 billion Indian tech giant, and the most common PR challenge in that space is the problem of being ignored. People just don't want to read about your new product launch or your Milwaukee plant's ISO 14001 certification. The only people who are going to seriously discuss Applebee's new "Pick 'N Pair Lunch Menu" are, frankly, people with no lives. Then, something bad happens and you can't get people to shut up: Catch 22.0.

As a former waiter, I have little pity for Applebee's or the disgraced pastor. But as a marketer, I wince at the thought of those arrows whistling over my head!

Applebee's PR/social media staff made a few decent efforts, given the reality of the situation: The company fired a waitress in response to the cheapskate customer's complaint over an infraction that was not really an automatic termination offense. So, if Applebee's or the franchisee's operations management isn't going to reverse the termination, then reality is going to trump any spin about "corporate policy."

I wonder if the CEO thought that his PR department could magically make the problem go away without suffering the "humiliation" of reversing a decision. Come to think of it, General Custer was pretty stubborn about reversing his decisions.

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