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8 Tips to Prevent a Social-Media Meltdown

You can ignore social media, but that won't make it go away. Here's how to manage when it goes off the rails.
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All publicity is good publicity? The rules on that have certainly changed in the social-media era. Companies need to take care to avoid a social-media meltdown like Applebee's experienced earlier this year.

In case you missed it, here's what happened:

  1. Applebee's customer writes a snide note referencing God and leaves no tip for waitress.
  2. Waitress posts receipt on Reddit, with visible signature.
  3. Reddit readers respond, overwhelmingly in favor of the waitress.
  4. Applebee's fires the waitress.
  5. Social media explodes. Applebee's takes a public beating.

You want to avoid this type of thing. There is no guaranteed way to do so, but here are eight tips to help you avoid the pitfalls that Applebee's fell into.

Identify the right "bad guy." Applebee's decided it was the waitress. The Internet decided it was the customer. This was a huge mistake for Applebee's. The company should have asked itself, What is more important? Happy employees or a single cheapskate customer?

Your social-media manager (and yes, you need one) should read Reddit (and other sites). Your company may not want to have a Twitter account, a Facebook page, or write a blog. But that doesn't mean you can just ignore what's being said on those sites. Somebody needs to be responsible for being aware of and responding to things on the Internet. Your company may never end up being called out for its behavior by the Internet community, but if it does happen, you need to be aware of the right way to respond.

Your social-media manager needs to be in the know and totally loyal. The former is easier to find than the latter, but both are critical. Applebee's isn't the only company to make this mistake. HMV ended up with its mass layoffs being live tweeted. Tweets like "We're tweeting live from HR where we're all being fired! Exciting!!!" and "Just overheard our marketing director (he's staying, folks!) ask 'How do I shut down Twitter?'" went viral. Layoffs happen. Some person not being fired should have taken control of the account long before the first person was notified. The last thing you want is someone with the keys to your Facebook account being caught by surprise.

Remember, the Internet is forever. Wouldn't it be nice if you could just pull down a tweet and have it disappear forever? But you can't. The HMV debacle was stopped fairly quickly. But once something like that is up, long enough for one person to retweet it or save a screen capture, it's forever. And keep in mind that you can set up your Twitter account to automatically retweet other accounts. So, realizing even three seconds later that what was posted was a bad idea, is 3 seconds too late.

Social-media followers cannot stand hypocrisy. Applebee's came out with an official statement, 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." Sounds like a good, solid reason for firing someone. The waitress clearly violated a company policy by posting a receipt with the guest's name clearly visible. But remember that thing about the Internet being forever? Not long before, the official Applebee's social-media person had posted a nice comment from a guest, with name clearly visible. Sigh. (Journalist R. L. Stollar has all the screen captures from this historic social-media meltdown.) Applebee's took down that post, but by then it was too late. If your policy says, "No customer identities should be published on the Internet," then no customer identities should be published on the Internet.

You need a clear, legal social-media policy. This is not easy. You cannot prevent your employees from speaking to one another (and "speaking" includes posting to one another on Facebook) about working conditions. So you cannot ban people from complaining about pay, for instance. But you can make a policy that prohibits posting customer information. Just apply it equally.

Remember, your lowest-level employee has a voice, and it may be louder than your spokesperson's. Back in the day, if you wanted media attention you had to have connections or a public relations person or something that only important people had. Now, it takes an Internet connection. Though most employee ramblings are ignored by the Internet community, some are not. If you treat your employees badly, it's likely to come back to bite you in a big way.

If you're feeling defensive, it's time to shut up. Posting a customer signature was a bad idea. The waitress should not have done so. So, if company policy is to terminate someone for such an offense, terminate and then shut up. Defensiveness encourages further attacks, and you will not win against the Internet. So, just be quiet.

Having a perfectly smooth social-media life is not always possible, but these tips should help prevent complete disasters.

Last updated: Feb 13, 2013

SUZANNE LUCAS | Columnist

Suzanne Lucas spent 10 years in corporate human resources, where she hired, fired, managed the numbers, and double-checked with the lawyers.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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