The recent Applebee’s fracas included God, waitresses, sadly under-prepared management and the Ever-Shifting Mob.
It’s a great case study in crisis PR but not an easy one from which to pull clear lessons.
Recap: Pastor Alois Bell crossed off the default 18% tip and wrote: “I give God 10% . Why do you get 18?” This sets up the pastor as one of the cheapest Christians who ever displayed her parsimony to the masses.
Another waitress saw the receipt and posted it.
The embarrassed Pastor Bell doubled down on her arrogance and demanded that the waitress be fired. (Hell hath no fury like a woman pastor scorned).
It all kicked into viral gear.
That’s when the Ever Shifting Mob moved in. They demanded the waitress get her job back.
Applebee’s reaction to the firestorm? Initially, none. We in the PR business know that’s an invitation for the mob to fill the void with more anger, more demands, sarcasm, vitriol and of course the boycott threat.
R.L. Stollar lays it out in excellent detail.
The Applebee’s social media folks came in too late and did more damage than good. Once they moved past the company line their posts were amateurish, defensive and mildly condescending.
So this is where I enter and tell you what they should have done.
Nope. This, like many crises, has no black and white. First, the pastor was way out of line, both as a person and as woman of the cloth. (Celestial Voice: “Well, done, sister. Ten percent, by God!”)
Second, the waitress who posted the receipt was out of line, breaking the privacy agreement she must have known about.
Third, management had broken its own policy previously by posting positive customer notes.
Fourth, the management reacted very badly, publishing contrite explanations, then dumb explanations, then started deleting incoming posts, then deleted the status update and the 20,000+ responses. Then they lied.
Fifth, Applebee’s let the mob swell too large. When the mob reaches a certain size it continues to grow on its own accord, fed by its own outrage. Most people who post are well-meaning folks trying to find justice. Others are just angry bastards who want to spread their negativity.
When the mob is large, no answer is good enough. No explanation is thoughtful enough. You, the target, will always lose, falling under a barrage of individual postings that congeal into the cyber equivalent of a nuclear bomb.
In a nice family drama, it would have ended this way. The offending pastor would sincerely apologize for her childish behavior and make good with the other 8% tip. The waitress would apologize for breaking privacy rules despite her sense of outrage on behalf of her colleague. Applebee’s benevolently would nod and say possibly they overreacted and would re-examine the case. It would consider reinstating the waitress with a probation period.
And it all would go away.
There is no privacy. The actions of thoughtless people will occasionally be exposed, not in a local newspaper but on the only remaining stage – the international one.
Businesses, companies, corporations, are by default the bad guys and will get the blame. A crisis plan needs to be in place because when you hit the hot seat you need to instantly jump into action or your butt’s going to burn.
The biggest lesson: The Ever Shifting Mob is always in the wings, ready to wave the cyber pitchforks and torches, screaming for whatever they think at the moment is justice.
As my colleague/media master, Dick Jones says: “You can do the right thing 99 times; screw up once and it can bite you big time. And the unfortunate thing is, all institutions screw up occasionally.”
Be prepared, institutions. You could easily have a pastor and a waitress. And no matter what your official policy is, your response better thoughtful, humane and fast.
The Ever Shifting Mob will rant, then slowly scatter, looking for the next thing to protest.
Tag Archives: crisis PR
Dick Jones is one of the most respected professionals in the PR consulting field. Over the years, his company, Dick Jones Communications, has assisted more than 60 colleges and universities in the areas of public relations, story placement, media relations and crisis communications. I asked Dick to do a guest post on the role of the PR professional.
Arthur W. Page was a very smart man. He was the first corporate vice president of what today is known as public relations, taking that post in the 1920s for American Telephone and Telegraph Company.
Page “got it” from the start. He knew that sending the company’s messages to key publics was only half the job. The other half—and the more important part—was to inform AT&T and to provide counsel on what the public was thinking and feeling about any topic that could impact the firm.
The PR Department, said Page, “…ought to bring to the management at all times what it thinks the public is going to feel about a thing.”
Public relations scholars agree. Think how much heartache could be avoided if this occurred routinely. This mandate, however, is ignored more often than observed and that is not because PR professionals don’t believe in it or understand it. It is ignored because senior management does not believe in it or understand it.
Unfortunately, PR pros who sense trouble ahead and alert management to it are often running risks, especially if the trouble they spot is headed their way because of some action proposed by the organization they serve. This is particularly true within organizations that value loyalty—or rather a misplaced definition of loyalty—above all else. In such circumstances, the PR practitioner is liable to be considered disloyal or, at the very least, not a team player, if he or she has the temerity to point out problems that may arise from a particular course of action.
Of course it is not disloyal at all to point out potential public relations troubles arising from an organization’s decisions; quite the opposite, in fact. But if senior management doesn’t see it that way, it can derail a career and often has.
You can get a sense of the value an organization places on honest, reasoned feedback by whether or not the public relations function is included in senior management. If PR pros are present at the creation of policy, that’s a good sign. If, however, PR is “represented” in the councils of top management by some other staff function which then “interprets” management policy to the PR staff, that’s not such a good sign.
PR people who find themselves in the latter position will want to:
(1) see if they can find a “seat at the table” where they can provide feedback to senior management;
(2) resign themselves to doing only half of the job they are supposed to do;
(3) update their resume and look for a place that values the full public relations function.
The president called me at 3 p.m. the afternoon of the Attorney General’s press conference on the major drug bust. My news director and I (mainly him) were answering media questions. The president asked me to attend a meeting the students were holding that night.
It was an information session on the bust.
I said I would be there, along with the student affairs person and the provost. Someone said it would be a small gathering.
At 7 p.m. I walked over to the Student Activities meeting room.
At least 100 students sat waiting. They weren’t happy.
The Student Affairs director introduced us and the questions began, directed at me.
First question: “Why did you release the names of the student and all their information?” I was shocked at the students’ naivete.
“We didn’t,” I said. “The police did.”
“ It’s all over the Web.”
“It came from the Attorney General’s Office,” I explained. “When someone is arrested, the information is public.”
Two other students angrily asked me why we were making the students’ names public, making them look guilty before they were tried. The students involved in the bust were composed of black students and white students, but I could see now that this was all about race.
“We have no control over the information,” I said. “It’s provided to the media by the police. Our job is to answer questions we’re legally allowed to. No more, no less.”
There were more questions, then this: “Are drugs a big problem on campus?”
“I don’t think so,” I said. “In this case we had a minority of students that made it look bad for a lot of students.”
A sudden buzz among the audience began growing. It was dark and angry and getting angrier. I realized that they had picked up on the word “minority” and turned it into a slam against the minority population.
The grumble became a low roar. Just before it swelled out of control the Student Affairs director stepped up to the mic and told them to calm down and show respect. Slowly the noise subsided. I was amazed.
The provost, to my great relief, jumped in and translated what I had said and took it from there.
The meeting ended quietly. I’m not sure the students ever understood that the PR Department didn’t release the students’ names. They left, a little more educated but still upset.
Dealing with reporters is easy. We’ve got a major drug bust. It’s public.
Let’s get it done.
The secret is that you’re not on opposite sides. You’re dealing with a big story. For reporters and PR the end is the same: Headlines today. A new story tomorrow.
Students, I found out, are in a gray area in which emotion trumps the law. They are also subject to the influence of friends, faculty and staff.
At the end of a 16-hour-day, it was the students who were on my mind—the angry, the confused, and yes, the arrested.
When the drug bust press conference was over, Terry, my news director, President Loeschke and I walked outside. It was a sunny, warm November day. I saw a female TV reporter who was my intern years ago. I gave her a hug and we talked about the more innocent days when she was a student.
The Attorney General’s office arranged to march the students out, slowly, one-by-one, past for the media. As a PR professional, I admired their skill.
They had thought of every detail.
So did our president. “Where will the students be coming out?” She asked.
“Over there,” Terry said, pointing to a side door. “The police are going to escort them down this way, then turn left and into the vehicles.”
She nodded. “Then I want to stand right there.” She walked to a spot where the students would be coming around a curve. “I want to be here where they will have to face me and see how incredibly disappointed I am.”
I’ve been in the news and PR business for 30 years and thought I was I was pretty hardened. But a shiver went up my spine. This woman had been president of MU for only five months and here she was handling a drug bust press conference as presidential and human as a person can be.
She had gone on camera thanking the Attorney General’s Office for its fine work , reiterating that our university does not tolerate drugs. And now she was personalizing it. Hers was the last face each student would see before entering the police vehicle.
The students began passing by. A couple glanced at her and looked away. One student made jokes. The rest saw her and looked down in shame and humiliation.
On the PR side, the moment made for some hard-hitting photos. What parent couldn’t relate to this woman, alone, arms folded, watching one of her students, his head down, being led to jail?
She stood for higher education, leadership and values, and they had let her down. They had let the university down.
It was classic.
Dr. Loescke’s response – going on camera and thanking the Attorney General’s office, her insistence on placing herself in a strategic position to face the students and force them to face themselves – turned a negative moment into something universal, positive, and most importantly, human.
We drove back to campus. The afternoon was spent answering media questions and I thought at the end of the day it was over.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
More in Part 3.