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Do’s and Don’ts For Handling a Social Media Backlash

April 19th, 2011 | | Social Media & SEO

I was hanging out on Twitter the other day when a friend of mine Tweeted about the Facebook page for Applebee’s restaurant chain.  Here’s a screenshot of his Tweet:

So obviously I had to check it out, and yes, a huge amount of the Facebook wall consists of people complaining about their recent Applebee’s experience.  The Applebee’s Twitter account is the same basic story.  A lot of their commentary consists of some sort of apology or urging dissatisfied customers to call a special hotline number they have set up for “guest relations.”

A large amount of the complaints and negative comments are geared toward the recent accusation from a family whose toddler was served a margarita in his children’s cup rather than the apple juice they ordered at an Applebee’s in Michigan.  All of this controversy currently surrounding the restaurant chain got me thinking about damage control for businesses online, and how we can look at what Applebee’s is doing (or not doing) well, and how these things can be improved upon.

The first thing I’d like to point out is that Applebee’s isn’t sitting back and ignoring the bad press.  This incident was likely isolated to this one location, but as soon as something like this gets out to the press and gossipy web, people are going to blow it up.  To let the bad press build up without confronting it would be a huge error.  Since you can’t control what people will say, you should focus on how to make the impact a softer hit when something does go wrong. Below are a few tips for social media concerning bad press, with Applebee’s as my guinea pig.



  • Respond to legitimate concerns from your customers.  You need to let your customers know that you’re listening to them and care about their experiences at your business.  I scrolled back in time on Applebee’s Facebook page and noticed that their comments become more and more rare the further you go back.  If you’re going to dive into social media, you need to do so with a proactive mindset.  The first time your customers hear from you should NEVER be when things start to go wrong.


  • Address the concern as soon as possible and let your customers know what you’re doing to fix the problem – and FIX IT.  Applebee’s has done well at letting people know that they’ve changed the process for how children are served in their restaurants across the country, not just in the Michigan location:



  • Let your personable side shine through.  Some businesses are plain boring to follow online because they simply share what’s going on with the menu/sales or in this case, doing a lot of damage control.  If you start early in social, and don’t only interact with your customers when there’s a problem, you’re more likely to get a positive response from your efforts.  Personally, I am more likely to unfollow a business account on Facebook or Twitter if they’re constantly spamming my newsfeed/timeline with repetitive information.

Prior to the alcohol incident at the Applebee’s in Michigan, they were running a contest that required followers to interact with them online.  Getting people involved is the best way to have them pay attention to your Tweets and Facebook posts.  For an example of someone who does a really great job of interacting with followers online, check out Scott Wise (Twitter handle: @brewhouse) from Scotty’s Brewhouse in Indiana.  He brings in a lot of great social elements for his restaurants but also gives us just enough insight to his life and other fun stuff to keep people interested in what he has to say.  Also, it’s actually him doing the Tweeting ;)



  • Utilize the options available to you to get the word out.  Sometimes your fans do the best promotions for you, and that’s what the re-tweet button is all about!  You can ask our resident Social Media Guy at Hanapin, Dave Rosborough, how time consuming it can be to come up with original content to keep people engaged.


A good way to show appreciation for your followers is appreciate (retweet/promote) their content as well; otherwise, they might as well be following an RSS feed. –Dave Rosborough, Hanapin Marketing



  • Overuse sarcasm or negativity with your customers online.  Not everyone understands a joke when it’s in text form, and some people can’t pick up on dry humor at all.  Sure, the commenter shown below is probably running the topic into the ground, and Applebee’s would likely rather forget the incident and move on, but it’s a pretty serious topic, and shouldn’t be taken lightly especially on an account representative of the company as a whole.  Making too many questionable responses can alienate your customers.


  • Comment on EVERYTHING.  You need to decide if someone is using your social outlet as an actual means of contacting the company or just to receive the limelight (these folks are also known as “comment trolls”).  As people grow more and more used to interacting on the Internet, they develop a filter.  It’s becoming easier for other customers to sort out the worthless comments from the ones that are legitimate concerns.  Again, with the example below, avoid using sarcasm, as it just doesn’t make you look much better.


  • Well maybe this is a “don’t.”  I’m on the fence on this point anyway.  Applebee’s often refers their complainers on Facebook and Twitter to a hotline so they can report their experience.  I think that this can actually alienate your customers as well.  They’ve already seeked you out once, and it wouldn’t surprise me if a lot of customers don’t call this number.  On the bright side, I did some dialing in, and it turns out that this toll free number connects you to a real, live person! Point: Applebee’s.  If this can be avoided, it’s best to not have to redirect people to another medium, and find a way to record trends in complaints (and compliments!) from all mediums that you’re using so that you get a full perspective on your business and what your customers are saying.

The bottom line is that social media is a growing and important area of your online presence.  If you start off strong with a plan in place, you’ll be more likely to enjoy these tools more and see a greater range of benefits to using them.


Jessica is an Assistant Account Executive at Hanapin Marketing, a search engine marketing firm focused on generating results through PPC and SEO.

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