Key takeaway from the Applebee’s uproar

Feb 04, 13 Key takeaway from the Applebee’s uproar

I have to start this post off with a disclaimer. I used to work at Applebee’s in the corporate communications department. And I need to add a second disclaimer — managing a restaurant chain in a social media world is hard. Very hard. You’re at the mercy of thousands of employees in thousands of different restaurants.

I’m not a designer, but if I was I would have illustrated a visual for this post. It would have been a group of people representing different chain restaurants like Applebee’s running from a Facebook icon. Or Mark Zuckerberg. Either way, you get my drift.

So now that we’ve established being a chain restaurant in a social media world is hard, let’s talk about what makes it harder. The answer: Forgetting that your brand is what your customers say it is.

I don’t know exactly what happened internally when the Applebee’s receipt was posted on Reddit last week. But I can guess. A group of smart C-level execs and communicators got together with Legal and analyzed the situation. And eventually, amongst other things, they established the following:

Legal counsel — either the franchisees’ or Applebee’s — told the franchisee and C-level execs that the employee had to be fired for violating a guest’s privacy and that doing so was necessary to avoid a lawsuit or a proliferation of the issue; basically other employees doing the same thing.

And herein lies the lesson:

Companies across the board are too quick to do whatever Legal says instead of listening to Legal counsel’s advice and then making a risk/reward decision. This submissiveness is becoming more dangerous to a brand’s perception in today’s online world because many (not all) of the lawyers providing this counsel do not have a solid understanding of social media. They don’t comprehend the impact their counsel can have on the brand’s reputation.

So how did this manifest itself in the Applebee’s situation? Well, let’s consider the following factor:

Applebee’s core customer when I was there in 2007 was a family that makes $30K-$50K a year and sees going to their neighborhood Applebee’s as a big night out. Guess who I’m guessing fits right into that demographic? Chelsea Welch, the employee Applebee’s fired.

There are a lot of other factors involved in this situation, but this is the one that ultimately cannot be ignored. And ultimately was ignored. And this is the tipping point where the conversation implosion that followed could have been avoided.

So what should a company do if it ends up in a similar situation? Well, it’s hard to say exactly because each issues that sparks like this via social media is so unique. But here’s where I’d start — Put yourself in your customer’s shoes. Ask yourself what you’d be saying to friends and family if you were watching the story unfold as a customer. And really think about how you’d respond to any proactive statement that your brand is about to post on your Facebook page.

This too will pass. Applebee’s will take a reputation and sales hit, but in the end, will be ok. We all get in an uproar over an issue and then sooner or later, another issue comes along.

But one issue that will not go away is just how poisonous a “proper, legal” approach and or statement can be for a brand, restaurant or otherwise, if it doesn’t take the customers’ natural inclinations into account. Someone in those initial meetings should have thanked the lawyers for their advice and then brought up the risks that went along with that advice.

Then the collective brainpower sitting at the table should have decided to penalize Chelsea, but let her keep her job after considering how customers — especially Applebee’s core demographic — would react if she was fired. And they should have taken the story and added it to Applebee’s new restaurant employee orientation.

Then lastly — and this can still happen — the key players should have made an agreement that while Legal always needs to have a seat at the table when issues like these arise, they shouldn’t have the only seat anyone to which anyone pays attention.

We’re not used to doing that in corporate America. Questioning authority. But then again, isn’t that one of the tenants of social media?


  1. Great post, Justin!

  2. wrytir /

    Spot on, Justin. The hurdles imposed by Legal I find are far greater than a social media-doubting C. I’ve had companies approach me to develop their in-house “policy.” My approach is simple and straightforward, therefore accessible to the employee base. So far, anyway, by the time Legal is finished with their red ink, the document grows from 1-2 pages to 12. And mass adoption by employees never materializes.
    Legal should have an opinion, but a realistic assessment of the full landscape should prevail.

  3. armygreen /

    holy kee-ryst!!! People, there are children in this world dying from famine and disease. And this hoo-hah over applebee’s? NONSENSE.

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