Category Archives: Internet

Copy & Paste Crisis Management, Part 2: Applebee’s and the Bad Tipper (UPDATED)

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.

After a full business day of getting the business, Applebee’s crafted this precious gem:

“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:

  1. Contact the Franchisee, Welch and Bell.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?)
  4. 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:

Tips are not optional, they are how waiters get paid in America

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.


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Would you be inclined to buy from this sales rep?

Two days ago, I was contacted by a sales representative from a firm that offers incentives to mobile users so they’ll become more loyal (company and product names have been removed):

Hi Walter,

Users love texting for free. They love you for it, right? So let’s love your users back – with free stuff. Each time a user does what you want –  sending 10 texts, inviting more friends to your app, or buying a pack of minutes – we give them virtual coins. They redeem virtual coins  for any product of their choice – like an XBox, PS3, Starbucks Coffee, or a $20 Amazon gift card. The top Communication apps are using [REDACTED] to increase user retention, engagement, and loyalty. Check out:




[REDACTED] is awarding more than 8M users a day across thousands of Android apps. We increase user retention by 12-14%.The rewards and virtual coins don’t cost you anything. Just give out rewards to your users, and watch them come back every single day. Users text a lot more and get free stuff. You get more opportunities to engage with them. Everyone shares the <3.


— Sales Rep

When I didn’t reply, he followed up tonight:

Knock knock… Anyone home? I haven’t heard back yet. Can I speak with someone from your Business Development Team?


— Sales Rep

I don’t know this guy, and perhaps I’m just in a mood… but this is one of the most off-putting sales emails I’ve ever received.

“Knock knock?” WTF, mate? Have I annoyed you because I didn’t respond promptly to your unsolicited message? Is there an onus on me to reply in a timely fashion to every sales pitch? I didn’t realize.

And, no: that smiley face doesn’t make you seem any less unmannerly. I never knew a sense of entitlement was key to closing the deal, so thanks for setting me straight.

Also, did you happen to notice that our apps don’t contain any of the features or actions you described, such as sending texts or buying minutes? Should I be offended that you couldn’t be bothered to take two minutes to read about our apps, or should I just feel fortunate to hear from you?

Setting my reaction aside for a moment, does his message like he’s interested in helping me become more successful? Or did it seem rather Ctrl + C, Ctrl + V?

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A few thoughts on Instagram’s TOS problem

Can you name a successful Web service whose fortunes fell because they updated their Terms of Service?

Neither can I, but since Instagram announced proposed changes to its TOS, I’ve read a lot of commentary about how they’re alienating prolific users who post high-quality content. (A few will leave and other shutterbugs will fill the vacuum.)

Working with lawyers, I’ve drafted TOS documents for several companies. Users “click to agree” almost anything without reading it first, but that’s never stopped me from explaining policies clearly and simply. Because I’ve been on both sides of this issue, TOS changes just don’t get me worked up. As one wise soul put it, “if you’re not paying for it, you’re the product.”

I’m willing to bet that the proposed changes weren’t reviewed externally before they were announced. A TOS isn’t proprietary information, so why not recruit a working group of power users to ask them if they can work within the new guidelines? Um, Instagram has formed 1:1 relationships with the members who make the service interesting, right?

Around midday yesterday, Instagram updated its blog to clarify the TOS changes. This was the right call — if you don’t tell your story, someone else will tell it for you. I didn’t care for the tone used in the post; purely a matter of taste, but when I flip through my PR swatch book, Condescending Corporate isn’t a first choice.

“Thank you, and we’re listening” is a patronizing way to address angry users, as are statements like “legal documents are hard to understand.” I’m just glad they didn’t include “math is hard.” There’s also too much text; if users don’t read the TOS closely, I doubt this co-founder’s message got more than a quick scan. Each of his points could have been reduced to a couple of sentences. I’m sure this post was sincere, but it wasn’t persuasive.

After reading the last paragraph, a reasonable person might assume that the hue and cry raised by users would lead Instagram to revisit and change proposed policies. That’s misleading. Give the community a perceived sense of ownership and they will become engaged and passionate. Give them an overblown sense of how much they direct the company’s management and direction, and they’ll feel betrayed and ignored.

What would I have done differently? I’d have produced something more direct, like an AMA session on Reddit to discuss the proposed changes ad nauseum. A 90-second YouTube video would have had more personality and could have elicited empathy. (Moreover, YouTube’s analytics can help determine which parts of your argument resonate with your audience.)

The section of the blog post explaining that companies won’t use Instagram photos in ads read like pure CYA: if they NEVER had any intention of licensing photos to third parties for ads, why did the language appear in the revised TOS? Why not just come clean and say, “we changed our minds.”

If I were King of Instagram, I’d have put together a Town Hall so the company could speak directly to users without a PR filter. Ask someone like Xeni Jardin or Kara Swisher to moderate, and suddenly, Instagram is a steward of discussions about user-generated content. I’d even have called Apple to see if I could stream the event to stores in top markets and would have used the service to promote the event.

Regardless of what I’d have done, Instagram will weather this; I’d be surprised if their growth declines as a result of the TOS controversy.

Every communication crisis is an opportunity to engage your community. Don’t just wipe the egg off your face; make an effort to reach people where they are and be as clear as you can.


Filed under Community Management, Internet