Saturday, September 14 • 3:21pm - 3:40am
“Rotten to the core: A case study of Applebee’s PR meltdown on Facebook”

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The Internet and social media are changing the ways in which companies communicate with key audiences (Tinker, Fouse, & Currie, 2009; Veil, Buehner, & Palenchar, 2011; Young & Flowers, 2012). Because of 24-hour access, communication happens even faster than ever (Bridgeman, 2008; Young & Flowers, 2012), and public relations professionals are struggling to keep up with the accelerated pace (Young & Flowers 2012). Because of this, social media sites often set the stage for public relations meltdowns (Young & Flowers, 2012). 

The Applebee’s case is a prime example of an organization that failed to communicate effectively on social media during a crisis. The restaurant recently made headlines after it fired a waitress for posting a customer receipt on Reddit. (Payne, 2013; Porter, 2013). This led to a two-day fiasco where the Applebee’s communication team struggled to quell concerns from stakeholders who bombarded the restaurant’s Facebook page with angry comments (Stoller, 2013). The purpose of this case study is to examine Applebee’s use of Facebook to respond to negative feedback from social media users. 

A review of the literature revealed a lack of research on the ethical concerns that arise when communicating crisis messages on social media. Therefore, this study sought to answer the following research question: Did Applebee’s demonstrate ethical behavior when responding to user complaints on Facebook? 

A case study approach was used to determine if Applebee’s demonstrated ethical communication to relay crisis messages on Facebook. The study examined company Facebook messages posted on January 31, 2013 and February 1, 2013. Analysis included both textual (the typed messages that Applebee’s posted to its Facebook page) and nonverbal messages (the implied communication messages that Applebee’s sent by deleting comments, blocking users, and hiding company Facebook posts). This research utilized Barker and Martinson’s (2001) TARES Test for ethical persuasion that includes five principles: Truthfulness, Authenticity, Respect, Equity, and Social Responsibility (Baker & Martinson, 2001). 

Analysis revealed that Applebee’s did not meet the requirements for ethical persuasion set forth by the TARES test. First, the restaurant did not demonstrate Truthfulness of the Message because it concealed information about its previous actions in its messages to audiences. Second, Applebee’s did not meet the requirements for Authenticity of the Persuader because it did not demonstrate a balance of loyalties between the company and key stakeholders. Third, Respect for the Persuadee requires that a company does not promote raw self-interest. By deleting Facebook comments, blocking users, and denying its actions, Applebee’s did not meet this requirement. Fourth, to exhibit Equity of the Appeal, persuaders must allow time for reflection and counterargument. Applebee’s deleted comments, therefore it did not demonstrate this requirement. Finally, the restaurant did not meet the requirements for Social Responsibility for the Common good because Applebee’s communication efforts displayed disregard for the wider public interest. 


Applebee’s. (2013a, January 31). We wish this situation hadn’t happened. [Facebook update]. Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/applebees 

Applebee’s. (2013b, February 1). We appreciate the chance to explain our franchisee’s action in this unfortunate situation. [Facebook update]. Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/ 

Baker, S., & Martinson, D. L. (2001). The TARES test: Five principles for ethical persuasion. Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 16, 148-175. doi: 10.1080/08900523.2001.9679610 

Bridgeman, R. (2008). Crisis communication and the net: Is it just about responding faster…or do we need to learn a new game?. In P. F. Anthonissen (Eds.), Crisis communication: Practical PR strategies for reputation management and company survival (pp.169-177). London: Kogan Page. 

Coombs, W. T., & Holladay, J. S. (2012). The paracrisis: The challenges created by publically managing crisis prevention. Public Relations Review, 38, 408-415. doi: 10.1016/j.pubrev. 

Macnamara, J., & Zerfass, A. (2012). Social media communication in organizations: The challenges of balancing openness, strategy, and management. International Journal of Strategic Communication, 6, 287-308. doi: 101.1080/1553118X.2012.711402 

Payne, J. (2013, February 1). Applebee’s taking heat on social media for firing waitress. Yahoo! Small Business Advisor. Retrieved from http://smallbusiness.yahoo.com/ 

Porter, C. (2013, February 5). US restaurant Applebee’s commits ‘social media suicide.’ Herald Sun. Retrieved from http://www.heraldsun.com.au/ 

Sloin, H. Seivold, G., & Prescott, J. (Eds.). (2009). How social media are changing crisis communication—For better and worse. Security Director’s Report, 9, 2-5. Retrieved from http://www.ioma.com/secure 

Stoller, R. L. (2013, February 2). Appblebee’s overnight social media meltdown: A photo essay. R. L. Stoller, Journalist: Thoughts and Provocations. Retrieved from http://rlstollar.wordpress.com/ 

Tinker, T. L., Dumlao, M., & McLaughlin, G. (2009). Effective social media strategies during times of crisis: Learning from the CDC, HHS, FEMA, the American Red Cross and NPR. The Strategist, 15, 25-39. Retrieved from http://www.oecd.org 

Tinker, T., Fouse, D. (Eds.), & Currie, D. (Writer). (2009). Expert round table on social media and risk communication during times of crisis: Strategic challenges and opportunities [Report]. Washington, DC: American Public Health Association. Retrieved February 26, 2013, from http://www.apha.org/NR/rdonlyres/47910BED-3371-46B3-85C2-67EFB80D88F8/0/socialmedreport.pdf 

Veil, S. R., Beuhner, T. & Palenchar, M. J. (2011). A work-in-process literature review: Incorporating social media in risk and crisis communication. Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management, 19, 110-122. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-5973.2011.00639.x 

Young, C. L., & Flowers, A. (2012). Fight viral with viral: A case study of Domino’s Pizza’s crisis communication strategies. Case Studies in Strategic Communication, 1, 93-106. Retrieved from http://cssc.web.unc.edu/ 

avatar for Desirae Johnson

Desirae Johnson

Graduate research assistant, Kennesaw State University
Kennesaw State University, United States

Saturday September 14, 2013 3:21pm - 3:40am EDT
ROWE 1009

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