If you haven’t heard the story of Chelsea Welch then you have probably been living under a social networking rock for the last week. Chelsea is the waitress fired from Applebee’s for posting an image of a receipt left by Pastor Alois Bell of Truth in the Word Deliverance Ministries in St. Louis. The comments left by Pastor Bell, and the subsequent firing of Ms. Welch, have caused a social media backlash that has washed over Applebee’s like a tidal wave. Unfortunately, Applebee’s made the situation much worse with a completely mismanaged public relations response.
In case you aren’t up to date on the issues involved with this situation, here is a brief overview:
- Pastor Bell and at least nine other members of her church dined at Applebee’s
- Applebee’s policy states that any groups with over 6 diners will be automatically charged an 18% gratuity
- Pastor Bell attempted to avoid the automatically charged gratuity by scratching it out
- The pastor wrote a note on the receipt saying, “I give God 10%, why do you get 18”
- Pastor Bell claims to have left a cash tip of $6 for her portion of the bill (that amount is slightly under the 18%)
- The server showed the receipt to Ms. Welch, who posted it online
- Pastor Bell complained to the restaurant about the receipt, saying that her reputation had been harmed, and asked them to terminate anyone involved
- Ms. Welch was fired by the Applebee’s franchise for violating a company policy intended to safeguard guests.
- The firing inflamed the social media firestorm that had begun with the image of the receipt.
- Applebee’s attempted to respond by issuing the following statement on their Facebook page:
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.
- Thousands of social media users responded to the statement in defense of Ms. Welch.
- Applebee’s social media team responded to many of the comments with further “explanations” of the situation.
- Applebee’s has posted two status updates since the original statement attempting to calm the storm.
- It hasn’t worked.
If you are interested in a much more detailed account of the issues, a great place to start is in this photo essay by R.L. Stollar.
As previously stated, Applebee’s has completely mismanaged this situation. Their problems range from hypocrisy in their own policies to a poor understanding of how to manage public relations on social media.
Other than the fact that the message and attempt to avoid the gratuity was out of line for the pastor, one of the primary complaints about the situation has been that Applebee’s demonstrated a lot of hypocrisy in their decision to fire Ms. Welch. They claimed that she was fired for posting customer information without permission. However, two weeks prior to this situation, the Applebee’s Facebook page had allegedly posted an image of a compliment left by a customer written on what appears to be the back of a receipt. This image included the full name of the customer. It seems that the company’s policies only apply when the issue makes Applebee’s, or its guests, look bad.
Another issue with their response is that they assumed that the average person on social media would not be smart enough to pick up on the subtleties of their company policy. They stated that any employee found in violation of their policy would “be subject to disciplinary action, up to and including termination of employment.” They followed that by stating that the franchisee “no choice but to take the action they did.” In fact, the franchisee had plenty of choice. Ms. Welch could have been given a verbal warning, a written warning, a suspension, or any other acceptable form of discipline that didn’t include termination. Termination was simply the most severe form of punishment allowed by the policy. Unfortunately for Applebee’s, many of us picked up on that distinction.
Finally, the social media team for Applebee’s did some of the worst public relations work I have ever seen (probably competing with Netflix’s complete lack of public relations with the price hike/Qwikster fiasco). They began by responding to the comments being left on their status. Their responses were attempts to explain the situation, but they came off as desperate attempts to let everyone know that their were pieces of the story that were wrong. For example, many people believed that the server didn’t receive a tip. That’s untrue. The 18% gratuity was still charged to Pastor Bell’s card. The server who waited on the pastor was also not the same server who took the picture and posted it online. Applebee’s social media staff repeatedly pointed this out to commenters. The problem with this is that they came off sounding like they were arguing with the responders. That is not a wise decision when you are trying to calm people about a situation. It was also pointed out by many of the responders that they should be posting these detailed explanations as status updates instead of on a comment thread that had thousands of posts (the thread currently sits at 21,324 responses). It took a while, but Applebee’s finally posted a more detailed response as a status update. However, they should never have to be told by social media users how they should post different types of responses. I would think public relations professionals should know this already.
It took a while, but the company finally posted a status that included a reference to Pastor Bell’s receipt. Buried in the status, was a condemnation of Pastor Bell’s actions.
Please note that we are also not excusing the Guest’s behavior in this matter and the unacceptable comment she wrote on the receipt, which is offensive to us and all our hard working team members.
Applebee’s has done a lot of damage during this fiasco. While the furor will eventually subside and the company will return to business as usual, it will likely cost the company millions of dollars in revenue. These losses can be mitigated if the company takes action now. The condemnation of Pastor Bell’s actions are a good start. However, there is an important step that must be taken. Applebee’s must assume responsibility for their actions and admit fault. This seems to be a difficult concept for most large corporations.
They must publicly acknowledge that the franchisee could have taken differently disciplinary action. They must admit that their actions were not consistent with their policy. They had no problem posting images of positive customer comments that included the customer’s name, but claim that this practice is against policy when the comments are negative. Their practices and policies need to be normalized and followed throughout the organization. Finally, they need to issue a public apology to Ms. Welch. I don’t think they are at the point that they can offer her a new job, but an apology is in order. Finally, they need to accept that their public relations team completely failed to manage this situation. They need to learn how to manage a social media mob without throwing gas on the fire.
Within three months, two different franchise owners have caused the brand problems. First, Zane Tankel caused an uproar with his threats to “shrink the labor force” because of the Affordable Care Act. That display of stupidity was followed by the terrible management of the Chelsea Welch situation. Applebee’s needs to bring themselves into the 21st century. We live in a world where the average person has an enormous amount of access to information. That information can be shared practically instantaneously with millions. The company, including its franchisees, can’t afford to make stupid decisions that will cost millions. They can’t have hypocritical policies that are used to justify terminations. They can’t weigh in on political issues by threatening to “shrink the workforce.” All of this information gets around. The people will no longer accept the hypocrisy and elitism of corporate management. We have the power and ability to affect the bottom line. With social media, we now have the tools to organize our efforts to send a message (see the list of social media sites dedicated to boycotting Applebee’s below). The message to Applebee’s is clear: until you change your hypocritical policies, accept responsibility, and apologize for your mistakes, we will no longer be patronizing your restaurants. While the company will eventually recover…it will cost you millions. Fortunately for me, there’s a Chili’s right down the street. Anyone care to join me?
A short list of Facebook pages dedicated to boycotting Applebee’s: