The era of social media has proven to be both a benefit and a disadvantage for businesses today. In times of positive publicity, websites such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and many others, complement good news and help businesses share it with their publics. In times of crisis, however, publics expect to see an answer immediately on the businesses’ social media profiles. Not only that, but they are able to communicate their feelings, both with the business and other consumers, with a simple comment or “Like.” Companies should take their social media accounts into much consideration when creating a crisis communication plan. When a crisis occurs, businesses should immediately address their publics on their social media accounts. However, as I will discuss in this paper, what you say is equally as important as how quickly you say it. This paper will discuss two crises that were both broken and managed on social media accounts: the Domino’s YouTube crisis and the Applebee’s Facebook crisis. Although both have positive and negative aspects to their crises responses, the Domino’s crisis was resolved more quickly and with less damage, while the Applebee’s crisis was poorly handled and escalated quickly.
The Domino’s Crisis
In 2009, two employees of a Conover, N.C., Domino’s franchise recorded themselves doing unsanitary acts in the Domino’s kitchen. Later identified as Kristy Hammond and Michael Setzer, Hammond recorded the video and provided narration while Setzer committed unhygienic acts such as putting cheese up his nose and nasal mucus on the sandwiches. The pair decided to post the video to YouTube, where it quickly reached over a million views. According to the New York Times, the video appeared in five of the first 12 results of a Google search for “Domino’s.” Domino’s, who did not have its own social media presence at the time, quickly learned of the wildfire that can spread across it.
The Applebee’s Crisis
In January 2013, a St. Louis, M.O., pastor shared appetizers with a group of friends at an Applebee’s restaurant. The group was large enough that an automatic 18% gratuity was added to the bill. The pastor wrote on the receipt, “I give God 10%, why do you get 18?” Another Applebee’s waitress saw the receipt, took a photo of it and posted it on the photo sharing website Reddit with the comment “I’m sure Jesus will pay for my rent and groceries.” After the photo received a fury of comments from Reddit users and garnered some online attention, the pastor contacted Applebee’s and complained. The waitress who posted the photograph was promptly fired, which sparked an even bigger online upset. Instead of imposing a crisis communication plan to diffuse the situation, Applebee’s took to Facebook to address the situation in a way that shocked everyone from crisis communication professionals to the average Facebook user.
After the immediate surge of angry YouTube viewers, Domino’s waited to respond, although, behind closed doors, they were doing a lot to remedy the situation. This silent period only created more of an outcry for action from the Domino’s higher-ups. After Domino’s realized that the situation was not going away on its own, Domino’s set up a Twitter account to respond to its customers. They informed customers that this was an isolated incident and that they were taking measures to ensure that all of their franchises were thoroughly sanitized, as well as other preventative measures. After they set up their Twitter account, Domino’s posted an apology on its website. They then asked their followers to “retweet” (a method of sharing one account’s Twitter update, or tweet, with other Twitter users) this apology until they released their official statement. Domino’s released its official statement via its U.S. president, Patrick Doyle, on YouTube, the same website that the crisis-creating video broke out on. They then backed up the claims they made in their statement with evidence that they were taking action.
Although Domino’s took too much time initially before posting a response to its crisis, the Domino’s response was much more effective than Applebee’s. Both companies should have released an immediate response following their knowledge of the crisis. A simple “We are currently gathering details on this incident and will release an official response shortly,” would do better than no response at all. At the time, Domino’s did not have a social media presence, and so they were informed of the crisis by loyal customers. Creating a brand that breeds customer loyalty is imperative for any crisis—big or small. Having fans that will stand behind your company to support it is essential to a company’s survival through a PR crisis. However, companies should constantly be monitoring their brand across the Internet, especially on social channels. It is the company that should be the first to know when something negative and potentially damaging has hit the Internet.
Domino’s set up a Twitter account which it used to inform customers of the actions taking place on Domino’s behalf. Applebee’s, which already had its own Twitter account at the time of the crisis, had a widget on its website that pulled in tweets mentioning the Applebee’s handle. This is dangerous to have, for in cases such as this, people visiting the Applebee’s website are immediately bombarded with tweets speaking poorly of the restaurant chain. Both organizations released official statements on social media channels. For Domino’s, this worked. For Applebee’s, this didn’t. Domino’s had their U.S. President deliver the statement. It was heartfelt, real and apologetic. “We sincerely apologize for this incident,” Doyle said. “We thank members of the online community who quickly alerted us and allowed us to take immediate action.” Applebee’s statement did not include an apology to the public, or the waitress who was fired. “We wish this situation hadn’t happened,” wrote Applebee’s. “Our franchisee has apologized to the guest and has taken disciplinary action with the Team Member.” This response was non-apologetic, and did not address the situation that had outraged the Reddit and online community. The public was angry that the waitress had been fired, not that the guest had been publicly humiliated. Instead of diffusing the situation, this response only fueled the fire.
Another aspect of the two responses that Domino’s did well and Applebee’s did not, was that the Domino’s response came from a human, who seemed sincere and truthful. It was personal. The Applebee’s response, which was given on a simple Facebook status, seemed buttoned-up and elusive. No name was given, making it seem as if some low-on-the-totem-pole Applebee’s employee could have posted the Facebook status his or herself, or as if it were some minor blip on the corporate radar. A personal response is almost always better than a corporate-like response.
It’s at this point that the difference between the Domino’s crisis strategy and the Applebee’s strategy become clear. Domino’s response video, as well as the actions it took afterwards, was enough for the public to eventually forgive Domino’s and forget about the one bad apple. Three years after the incident, the Domino’s brand is still flourishing. Applebee’s crisis, however, was yet to see closure.
The manager of Applebee’s Facebook page responding to comments at early hours should speak for itself on the lack of thought that went into this action. It should be common knowledge that, in a comment thread that was growing by the thousands, one comment posted at a time when most people are asleep, would quickly get drowned out by all the other comments. Perhaps Applebee’s thought of this, which is why they then began to tag those who had commented and repeat the same statement over and over. However, this seemed even less human, almost as if a robot were operating the Facebook page and had only been built with one response. This, though bad enough, was not nearly as bad as Applebee’s comments that practically argued with responders. For example, Applebee’s wrote, “People can say a lot but it doesn’t mean it’s true. I really do understand why you’re upset, Manuel, I’m upset over the situation too. Sometimes it’s really hard to let people know just how much you really care behind a computer screen, in a facebook (sic) comment.”
After these actions by Applebee’s sparked even more controversy, Applebee’s “hid” the status and comments, meaning they were still online but couldn’t be seen by the public. This, of course, angered people who accused Applebee’s of deleting it, to which it replied that it hadn’t. This is technically true, but the status was made unseen to the public, whether it was deleted or simply hidden did not make the situation better. Once Applebee’s posts another status to attempt to rectify the situation, it is clear by comments such as “Applebee’s…just shut up,” that no amount of effort on the part of Applebee’s will please its publics.
After evaluating these two social media crisis responses, it is clear that a plan for social media response needs to be made before any crisis ever occurs. A response should be made quickly, and on a channel that not only makes sense for the situation, but that can be easily accessed by the publics. The response should be humanized, given by a person who is high up in the company, and most importantly, it should be apologetic. The same rules reply, whether or not the crisis involved social media. That being said, in today’s society, nearly all—if not all—crises will find their way onto a social networking website. A crisis is always discussed by the public and now, the public uses websites such as Facebook and Twitter to discuss all aspects of their lives. Companies should keep this in mind, and monitor social media channels everyday to feel the pulse of their publics. While social media can be a beneficial tool in the marketing and branding arsenal, it can also be the weapon that brings your company to the ground.