Social media's individual empowerment, immediacy and ability to embarrass are evident in Applebee's firing of a server for sharing a diner's snarky comment on Reddit.
The incident has generated apologies, policy restatements and tons of online comment that threaten to keep the PR firestorm aflame for days or longer.
It started when a pastor of a St. Louis church took members of her congregation to Applebee's after an evening service. When the pastor got the bill, with an 18 percent tip automatically added for the party of more than eight people, she crossed off the tip and wrote, "I give God 10%, why do you get 18%."
The server snapped a picture of the receipt and comment on her smartphone and later posted it online, where it went viral.
The pastor was upset because the picture of the receipt included her signature, as well as the snarky comment. She demanded Applebee's fire the server responsible. Applebee's responded on its Facebook page, saying it was against restaurant policy to reveal diner personal information. The company's CEO apologized, the local Applebee's franchise operator apologized and the server was apparently fired.
Then all hell broke loose.
People took to social media to chastise Applebee's for bullying and firing the server when it was company policy to add the 18 percent tip for larger groups of guests. Many said they were so upset they would never eat at Applebee's again.
The hullabaloo led to the pastor giving an interview with The Smoking Gun in which she apologized for sparking the incident, calling it a "lapse of character" that, she said, embarrassed her and her ministry. The pastor noted she left a $6 tip in cash on her $34.93 tab.
The server went online to urge people not to share the picture of the pastor's receipt with her signature visible. But she also said she didn't violate any company policy by sharing the receipt online.
There is a lot of blame to pass around in this story, but the lesson is unmistakable — recognize the power of social media to reach and galvanize a vast audience rapidly.
Public snarkiness, especially when you leave a trail, can become the fodder of social media. You shouldn't be surprised and offended when your snarkiness hits the fan.
Taking pictures and posting them can result in unintended consequences. You vented some frustration, but wound up losing your job.
Apologizing and disciplining a responsible worker doesn't guarantee you universal praise. In fact, it might earn you widespread ridicule.
And it all happens in real time, when you don't have a lot of time to think on your feet.
Adam Singer, writing on The Future Buzz blog, said Applebee's would have been wiser to apologize and offer some freebies to the customer, then use the incident as a learning exercise for staff, including the server who posted the receipt.
Singer suggests that another approach that would have defused the incident was to "fire" the customer for rude behavior to one of its servers, which would have boosted staff morale, though perhaps not captured the teachable moment.
Social media is powerful. Make sure you know what you're doing when you pull the trigger — or get shot at.