On January 25, a party of 10 dined at an Applebee’s in St. Louis. When Alois Bell picked up the check, she saw that the restaurant had added an 18% tip — a customary practice for large group. Bell crossed it out and wrote, “I give God 10% why do you get 18.” For good measure, she added the word “Pastor” before her name on the signature line.
Waitress Chelsea Welch didn’t serve the group, but she took a photo of the receipt and posted it on Reddit. After Pastor Bell learned that she’d gone viral, she called the restaurant to complain; Welch was fired soon after.
“Sanctimonious preacher vs. indignant working stiff” is a great storyline. I just wish Welch had obscured Bell’s name before submitting it to Reddit; she’d have had a claim to the moral high ground.
Outrage travels fast, so Applebee’s social media channels were soon bristling with comments from pro-waitress agitators. Because no one from Corporate quickly provided the SM team with a choate response, they turned to Ctrl+C, Ctrl+V, instead of simply using their right to remain silent for a few hours.
Nervous marketers: when you’re in a foxhole, I know copy + paste looks like a friendly, but it’s actually the enemy.
As I’ve written before, canned responses ≠ crisis management. Putting “we’re listening” on a loop is the exact opposite of listening, and even worse, it’s insulting. People know when they’re being shined on.
“We wish this situation hadn’t happened. Our Guests’ personal information – including their meal check – is private, and neither Applebee’s nor its franchisees have a right to share this information publicly. We value our Guests’ trust above all else. Our franchisee has apologized to the Guest and has taken disciplinary action with the Team Member for violating their Guest’s right to privacy.”
Very safe and by the book, but it creates a new narrative: the giant restaurant chain and the cheapskate who got her fired vs. a service worker trying to make ends meet.
(Applebee’s PR Team: close your eyes and imagine Chelsea Welch sharing her story on The Today Show: “What’s next for you, Chelsea?” asks a sympathetic Matt Lauer.)
Not that anyone asked, but what would I have done differently?
First order: ask Legal if we faced any liability because the receipt was publicized; if we were exposed, I’d urge them to negotiate a confidential settlement with Bell. If not, I’d direct the PR team to issue a press release indicating that another statement is forthcoming later today.
I’d then use the time I’d just bought to:
- Contact the Franchisee, Welch and Bell.
- Give Welch two options: 1) suspension without pay for two weeks and an apology on Reddit for posting Bell’s personal info, or, 2) stay fired.
- Issue a formal apology to Bell — before she receives the settlement, she agrees to record a YouTube video about why we tip servers in restaurants. (How many times do you think that would get shared?)
- Call The Today Show to find out when Welch and Bell can explain to Al Roker how they became besties.
I know: “that’s not how corporations act.” Of course they don’t; most organizations don’t have crisis-response plans; instead, they roll up the drawbridge and force their SM team to heave prefab responses over the parapets at the angry mob.
Can we please try out some weird, new ideas?
UPDATED: Applebee’s PR team must have burned the midnight oil, because they posted a timeline of the events with a detailed explanation of how Chelsea Welch apparently violated employee guidelines:
“Employees must honor the privacy rights of APPLEBEE’s and its employees by seeking permission before writing about or displaying internal APPLEBEE’S happenings that might be considered to be a breach of privacy and confidentiality. This shall include, but not be limited to, posting of photographs, video, or audio of APPLEBEE’S employees or its customers, suppliers, agents or competitors, without first obtaining written approval from the Vice President of Operations. The policy goes on to specify: Employees who violate this policy will be subject to disciplinary action, up to and including termination of employment.”
In related news, The Guardian published an op-ed by Chelsea Welch this morning:
I’d like to commend Applebee’s for drawing global attention to the plight of the American service worker. Ms. Welch, if you need a publicist, I recommend SKDKnickerbocker — they represent Sandra Fluke.