Applebee’s Overnight Social Media Meltdown: A Photo Essay

Hell hath no fury like a Facebook scorned. In today’s digital age, most of us assume everyone understands this fact. But every now and again, people surprise us. An ever-increasing element of this reality is that the hounds of Reddit, the Twitter armies, and Facebook vigilantes are more than willing to remind people that we live in a publicized world. You can’t hide behind privacy statements or legal jargon or appeals to company policy to pacify an Internet mob. Once you cross the line of Internet etiquette, the people of the World Wide Web will hunt you down and do their best to ruin you forever.

Applebee’s apparently never took note of this. You’ve most likely heard about their most recent encounter with virality. But in case you’ve been living under a rock, here’s a brief summary:

A waitress at a St. Louis Applebee’s lost her job for posting online the receipt upon which a pastor had declined to leave a tip, with a snarky note saying she gave God 10 percent.

After her dinner on Jan. 25, Pastor Alois Bell crossed out the automatic 18 percent tip charged for parties of more than eight. “I give God 10% why do you get 18,” she wrote above her signature.

Employee Chelsea Welch — a colleague of the stiffed server — took a picture of the receipt and uploaded it to the online site Reddit. She subsequently lost her job, an Applebee’s spokesman confirmed to, for violating a customer’s privacy.

Yesterday on Fox 2 Now, the pastor issued a (sort of?) apology.

All this information, of course, is so yesterday. “Pastor gets server fired” was Chapter One in this strangely entrancing saga, on par with a slow-motion train wreck from which you cannot tear away your eyes. Chapter Two is where Applebee’s apparently wants to commit suicide in front of our digital eyes.

Applebee’s fired the server in question, named Chelsea Welch. This created a fury of rage on the Internet, with social media users taking to their weapons of choice and lambasting away, thousands at a time, against the restaurant’s decisions. Numerous “Boycott Applebee’s” groups sprung up on Facebook, along with “Rehire Chelsea Welch” and other similar groups. Applebee’s website has a “What’s the Buzz” widget, that shows what people are saying on Twitter about the company. It’s been non-stop attacks, all publicly displayed on Applebee’s own page:

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But it started to get interesting last night. Earlier in the day, around 3 pm, Applebee’s made a status updated about the controversy:

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Applebee’s social media team decided to respond to the growing clamor by saying, “We wish this situation didn’t happen…Our franchisee has apologized to the Guest and has taken disciplinary action with the Team Member for violating their Guest’s right to privacy.” Around midnight last night, the reaction against this status had grown to a frenzy. There were well over 10,000 comments on the post, most of them negative.

There was a repeated theme to the comments, which the media has so far not covered. Applebee’s, just two weeks ago, had — according to comments — violated another Guest’s right to privacy themselves by posting a picture of a note from a guest that clearly featured the guest’s name. Most interestingly, Applebee’s deleted this picture right when the Chelsea Welch issue went viral. Here’s the original picture, captured by If You Can’t Afford to Tip… via screen shot:

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Users of Facebook were sharing this picture left and right, using it to call bull@#$% on Applebee’s reasoning regarding “right to privacy.” Here’s just a small sampling:

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By around 2 am, there were around 17,000 comments on Applebee’s original Facebook status. Then began the most bewildering move in corporate social media/public relations that I have ever witnessed. At 2:53 am, the middle of the night, whoever manages Applebee’s Facebook page started making comments on their status update. In response to the over 17,000 comments, the following statement appeared — not as a new status update, but as a comment on the status update. (Had to break it into two pieces to capture it.)

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I was, to put it plainly, stunned. Surely this was someone using a fake Applebee’s page to make a comment. Commenting on your own status update during the biggest PR disaster in the history of your company at 2:53 am is the exact definition of social media suicide. Assuming this was a fake Applebee’s account, I clicked on the name. It took me right back to the page I was on. This was an official Applebee’s person. Commenting at 2:53 am.

But that, readers, is just the beginning. Oh it gets better. So much better.

The reaction was immediate:

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Legitimate points. I mean, you can’t drop an official response in the middle of post that’s expanding 1K+ posts an hour. It becomes nearly impossible to find after 5 minutes.

Now, before I continue with the train wreck that follows, I’d like to sidetrack for a quick moment and reveal something else: the entire night, Applebee’s is allegedly deleting negative comments left and right, as well as blocking people from its Facebook page. People at this point are getting furious at being censored (again, a small sampling):

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So people are getting furious at being censored. Then Applebee’s social media makes a comment on a status update at 2:53 am. Next up: Applebee’s starts repeatedly tagging people in the middle of the night and repeating their same comment over and over… and over. It’s now about 3 am in the morning:

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This should come as no surprise, but — people don’t really like this repetition. It kinda gets under their skin. And they don’t hesitate to let Applebee’s know:

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You’d think at this point in time someone in Applebee’s social media team would advise whoever is posting on behalf of Applebee’s to just lay low for a while. But no — the unthinkable happens. At 3:06 am, Applebee’s starts tagging people and arguing with them:

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Naturally, people don’t take kindly to this:

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Around 4:20 am, Applebee’s finally and brilliantly decides to take its comment on its status update and make it an actual status update so it doesn’t have to keep repeating itself via comments:

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This now prompts people to comment on both the original status update as well as the new status update. I went to bed at 5 am. As of 5 am, the original status update had 19,027 comments. As of 5 am, the new status update had 2,111 comments.

I check back into Applebee’s Facebook page today at 2 pm. And guess what? That original status update, with almost 20,000 comments that featured Applebee’s complete social media meltdown? It is deleted, along with all those comments. But the problem is, the Internet doesn’t forget things like that. Which Applebee’s should have learned by this point in this controversy. People take it upon themselves to remind Applebee’s about that (now deleted) post:

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Applebee’s now makes its most brilliant move, posting, “No posts have been deleted.”

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There were many and numerous responses to this, but I think the shortest was the best:

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Denial is apparently the company’s PR weapon of choice. But as my saved screenshots show, their original status update is gone. There is still the one posted at 4:20 am, which now — at 2 pm — has gone from 2,111 comments at 5 am to 9,679. And there is a new status update from Applebee’s posted at around 10 am this morning that has 7,292 comments. The status update is as follows:

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As of 5:15 pm, Applebee’s social media was continuing to argue with people in the comments section, provoking one person to say, “Applebees, just shut up”:

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As of 8 pm when I write this, the tallies for comments are as follows: the original post, now deleted, was at 19,027 when I last saw it; the second post is at 11,216; the third post is at 11,035. That’s 41,278 mostly negative comments — and who knows how many more there were before Applebee’s started deleting comments, not just posts. I wonder why Applebee’s just doesn’t disable comments at this point.

The upshot of this is, the Internet is laughing. And Applebee’s is losing a lot of customers. After personally reading thousands and thousands of comments, I have seen businesses and non-profits and families and individuals all say they are boycotting or even canceling reservations or changing locations for regular business lunches and dinners. Surely there was a better way to handle this that wouldn’t have led to comments such as:

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Amidst all the rubble, though, there was one comment that stood out. Because it was a moment of kind-heartedness, which I appreciate after swimming through the filth and sarcasm and anger of the Internet:

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Updates, 02/02/2013

1. Readers have pointed out to me that Applebee’s did not delete the original post. Allegedly Applebee’s “hid” the post here.

2. If You Can’t Afford to Tip… informed me that they took the original screen shot of the other receipt that allegedly Applebee’s had posted and then deleted. You can view it on their Facebook page here. I changed the original post to reflect that, and am restating it as an update as well.

3. Did Applebee’s block me?

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4. I must be unblocked, because now — as of 8 pm tonight — I can see Applebee’s still going back and forth with people. But on Twitter this time. *sigh*

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Updates, 02/04-9/2013

1. As of 4:45 pm today (02/04), I was told (and verified) that Applebee’s has made public the previously hidden post.

2. This story now has over 1,400,000 views.

3. The following is a list of notable places this photo essay has been referenced: