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Big Op-Ed: When Private Comments Go Very Public


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Celeste Headlee.

But also buzzing around on the Internet, a routine meal at Applebee's that became a huge headache for the restaurant, a St. Louis pastor and a waitress. That's after a picture of the - a receipt went viral. Pastor Alois Bell and nine others stopped by Applebee's after a church service. Because of the size of the party, 18 percent was automatically added to the check. Bell paid the bill but wrote a zero on the additional tip line and scribbled, I give God 10 percent. Why you get 18? She also signed her name, with the title pastor added in front.

Another waitress who was not serving Bell snapped a photo of the receipt and then posted it online with the caption, I'm sure Jesus will pay for my rent and groceries. That post went instantly, almost instantly viral. It garnered thousands of comments from different websites and some pretty virulent attacks on Pastor Bell. Bell called Applebee's to complain and the company fired the waitress who'd posted the receipt. The reason giving, for the firing, was a violation of customer privacy since Bell's signature was visible on the receipt.

Today, we're going to take - we'll take a deeper look at the story through a series of op-eds about the incident. But we want to get your thoughts as well to tell us, do the fear of private actions going to public online make you change what you do? Call us at 800-989-8255. Our email address is And you can join our conversation at our website. It's at and then click on TALK OF THE NATION.

But first, back to the incident itself. In an interview with the local TV in St. Louis, Bell said, that's the pastor, she did leave a cash tip and the automatic gratuity was charged to her credit card as well. So there was no question of stiffing the waitress. The pastor apologized for leaving the note, saying it was a lapse in judgment.

Many people - most people, I think I could say, on the Internet jumped the fence on the fired waitress. But Michael Wolf, writing in Forbes, says, as a former waiter, all the arguments defending the waitress are true. Most wait staff make less than minimum wage. The pastor was probably incorrectly pulling the God card and Applebee's does not enforce their own privacy policy. The restaurant had been posting receipts with good feedback on social media for quite some time.

But Wolf defends the decision to fire the waitress anyway. He writes, here's why I think Applebee's is still in the right after all this. The server, Chelsea Welch, did violate the pastor's privacy by putting a copy of her signature on the Internet. Think about that. A signature is a very personal thing. It's what you put on checks. It's what you put on permission slips to excuse your children or grandchildren from school. It's what you put on your Social Security and passport. It's a part of your identity. And Chelsea Welch put someone else's on the Internet without their permission.

The fired waitress, Chelsea Welch, wrote an op-ed in The Guardian on Friday, defending herself and other service workers. She writes, I assumed the customer's signature was illegible, but I quickly started receiving messages containing Facebook profile links and websites, asking me to confirm the identity of the customer. I refused to confirm any of them. All were incorrect. I worked with the Reddit moderators to remove any personal information - Reddit is the name of the online website she was using. And then Chelsea Welch writes, I wanted to protect the identity of both my fellow server and the customer. I had no intention of starting a witch-hunt or hurting anyone. Now I've been fired.

But this wasn't just a problem for Chelsea Welch. It was big problem for Pastor Bell. The social media back (unintelligible)was huge. Clarke Gail Baines at MadameNoir, a black women's lifestyle website, writes this, Bell wasn't banking on the fact that her remarks were going to get blasted on the Internet and put a dent in her reputation really fast.

After the original jilted server showed a co-worker, Chelsea Welch, the receipt, Welch went online, posted the receipt and once people saw it, all hell broke loose. Bell said in an interview in St. Louis that people were so disgusted with her perceived slight of the waitress, that they were not only calling her a hypocrite but they claimed they weren't going to church because of people like her.

This story has also turned into a very sticky PR situation for Applebee's. The Twitter hashtag #BoycottApplebees took off. The company's Facebook page was deluged with comments. And the site administrator started responding to individual posts, which only ticked off customers even more.

Matt Scherer wrote an article called "Applebee's Facing A Social Media Disaster" for My San Antonio, and he said this: If you search the term Applebee's on Twitter, you'll get a long litany of posts, almost all of them with negative comments against the restaurant. In time, communications professionals will find this social media event on scale with the Tylenol case of 1982. They'll come up with some interesting theories and strategies. There's probably going to be some large public relations firm that will write a five-page white paper on how to manage or monitor your employee social media comments. Of course, for a fee, they'll help you monitor the feedback and traffic on your social media feeds.

We want to get your take on this. We'll continue looking at it a little deeper, but we're taking your calls as well as whether or not the fear of having your actions posted online has actually changed your behavior. And right now, we are talking to John from San Francisco, California. John, are you afraid, ever, of something you do getting - going viral?

JOHN: Not something that I do in particular, but I'm a seasoned HR director. I'm a vice president of HR in a hospital system. And unfortunately, I've been involved in several terminations of employees who have posted inappropriate things on Facebook. And coincidentally, my daughter happens to be a server at an Applebee's. And I have encouraged all of my kids - one of whom is now a young school teacher, just landed his first job - don't put - just leave Facebook alone. Facebook is extremely dangerous. Helpful in many ways, but it's dangerous. It can get you fired. It can get you sued. It can put you in jail. So what I tell people is you can't post anything. Don't post signatures, anything about social security numbers, anything that violates...

HEADLEE: So wait. Let me ask you, John. If that's what you're telling her, then it would've been OK if she posted the receipt without the signature visible?

JOHN: Correct. Absolutely. Unfortunately, to me, this is a no-brainer because - and I saw the photograph - because the signature is clearly visible. I suppose an identity thief, even though you can't get the credit card number, at least has the signature. And so in theory, an identity thief or, you know, a forger can, you know, duplicate that on some document or whatever. So it's a violation because it reveals the signature to the public. So I would've fired her in a heartbeat. However, if she put the picture on there but somehow had blurred out the signature and anything that could've identified the individual, then, no, I would not have fired her at all.

HEADLEE: OK. Interesting. John, calling from San Francisco, California. And here we also have from San Francisco, California, Ken. What do you think? Do you think that being a little afraid of things going viral online makes people change their behavior?

KEN: Well, it makes me more cautious really, not out of fear but to be very pointed in my argument. So in other words, I wouldn't lash out at someone in an insulting manner the way this pastor seemed to be doing. As a former server, the server has really very little control only of the service, not of the actual quality of food or the policy of the restaurant, which I'm sure had to be printed on the menu or sign there, somewhere. The pastor really should've complained to management rather than taking it out on the defenseless server.

But as for myself, I try to make - if I'm angry at service or a company's policies, I just to try to make a very pointed contextual thing, because the Internet, if nothing else, is full of trolls and people who like to, so-called, blow things up out of proportion. So I am aware of the reaction or the knee-jerk nature of the Internet that - in a way that people wouldn't act in person that they do online, sort of, throwing rocks from hiding.

HEADLEE: That's Ken. Thank you very much, Ken, for calling from San Francisco, California. We also read - R.L. Stollar writes in a blog post that was titled "Applebee's Overnight Social Media Meltdown." R.L. writes this: The upshot is this. The Internet is laughing and Applebee's is losing a lot of customers. And Patrick Coffee also wrote in a PR Newser article: This is why we think everyone should be legally required to work in a service-industry job, preferably at a bar or restaurant, for at least six months to better appreciate the other side of the equation.

And then to go back, briefly, to Chelsea Welch's op-ed for The Guardian, Chelsea writes this: I posted a picture to make people laugh. Now I want to make a serious point. Things like this happen to servers all the time. People seem to think the easiest way to save money on a night is to skip the tip. Obviously, the person who wrote this note wanted it seen by someone. It's strange that now that the audience is wider than just the server, the person is ashamed.

So again, we want to talk about public shaming, or maybe not. Does the possibility of something ending up on the Internet ever change your behavior? You can give us a call and let us know at 800-989-8255. Right now, we have Michael from Detroit, Michigan. What do you think, Michael? Do people change their behavior because now they have to worry about it going online?

MICHAEL: So we certainly do. We're more out in public now and certainly like this pastor was, with a large group of people, she was probably being a representative of something larger than herself. She was being a pastor. She was representing a congregation. And her behavior in public matters. And, you know, I have a license with the state of Michigan as a health care provider. And I know, darn well, when I'm out in public, if something like this happens, I am a representative of something larger than myself. And if I mess up or if I'm perceived to be rude, or snotty or something like that, then, you know, it could have a lot of ill effects and you won't have to be careful.

I thought the pastor's behavior was, you know, really kind of negative and came off really, really snotty. She was called on it and didn't like it. None of us would. But her response, you know, after that was rather than just apologizing and letting it go with that, then Applebee fired the waitress. And I find that a bit tragic as well.

HEADLEE: That's Michael calling from Detroit, Michigan. Let's also hear something from James in Tampa, Florida. What do you think? Do you ever get worried? You change decisions you make or change what you do based on whether or not it could end up online?

JAMES: No, ma'am, because I felt like if you say it, I went up to it. Mean it. You know, if you say it to somebody in person, then say it online. And we have culture now where people will hide behind the computer screen and change their name and make nasty comments. And this pastor meant it. This pastor thought it. The pastor wrote it, and then the pastor went to stand behind it. And that's the problem we have in this country. Everybody wants to cave, wants to get a lot pressure.

You know, if you got something to say and you think something or believe something, stand behind it. If people don't like it tough. you know, hurt feelings is what, you know, it'll make you better. You'll get over it. But she should've stand behind it. She meant it, that's why she wrote it. You know, she wouldn't wrote it if she didn't mean it.

HEADLEE: OK. That's interesting. James calling from Tampa, Florida. Let's go back to op-eds here, and this is Conor Fiedersdorf writing in The Atlantic. His piece id called "Should What Happens At Applebee's Stay at Applebee's?" In America, Conor writes, where the customer is always right, a confrontation between a customer and an employee, mediated by a manager, is almost never going to end in satisfaction for the employee - no matter how badly the customer behaved.

The general rule that they ought not expose customers to Internet ridicule is sound and necessary. Still, a part of me hopes that the degree of transparency brought by technology both keeps customers on better behavior and spares employees termination in instances when the behavior they expose is clearly indefensible. Maybe 10 years from now, Applebee's suspends that waitress for a week rather than firing her. Better yet, maybe the customer of tomorrow thinks twice before scrawling entitled screeds on her receipt, and the whole thing is avoided.

We definitely want to get your views on this. The phone number is 800-989-8255. And let me repeat the question here so everyone knows exactly what we're asking. What we're asking is, have you ever changed you behavior - either for good or ill - because you were concerned about how it might play online? That's the question. 800-989-8255. The email address is talk And here's Mary Ann(ph) in Mooresville, North Carolina. Mary Anne, have you every changed a decision based on whether or not it would go viral?

MARY ANN: I'm sitting on something. I'm in a county that's had any number of corruption issues. In fact, the sheriff is being sued right now inside the court for sexual harassment because of one of his deputies. And we're a couple of disabled women living together and animal control has harassed us. In fact, they my service dog and I filed (unintelligible) complaints. And they're holding on to her for no reason. But...

HEADLEE: But, Mary Ann, what does this - have you ever changed behavior? I mean, has this taught you to be careful about how things going...

ANN: Well, I have a piece of information that I took off of Facebook. One of the employees, and it's very damning. And I have hesitated to put it on Facebook. I could send this to any number of rescues and it would be viral in a matter of hours. It's absolutely - it basically says my idea of happiness is killing (unintelligible).

HEADLEE: Ooh, so, Mary Ann, that's a kind of cautionary tale. That's Mary Ann, and thank you very much for your call from North Carolina. Kind of a cautionary tale, saying she's pulled something off someone's Facebook page that could and up, you know, biting them in the future.

And let me read something else, which kind of fits. R.L. Stollar again in his blog post write: Hell hath no fury like a Facebook scorned. In today's digital age, most of us assume everyone understands this fact. But every now and again, people surprise us. An ever-increasing element of this reality is that the hounds of Reddit, the Twitter armies, and Facebook vigilantes, more than willing to remind people that we live in a publicized world. You can't hide behind privacy statements or legal jargon that appeals to company policy to pacify an Internet mob.

So let me to go, here, to Johann in Livonia, Michigan, not too far out of Detroit. Johann, what do you think? Do you change your behavior based on whether or not it'll be publicized on the Internet?

JOHANN: Absolutely. You know, when I was a kid growing up, you know, 20 years ago, my mom would say, you know, if you can say - if you don't have to write it, say it. And if you don't have to say it, hold your tongue. And, you know, I definitely going to self-censor myself of what I read on Facebook. And I think it's a great social benefit, as often times, I find myself, you know, thinking about the topic before I go and write something.

HEADLEE: Let me ask you something, Johann. Do you think people will think twice before writing something like this on a receipt because of this Applebee's uproar?

JOHANN: I think people already do. And I think, you know, if you aren't going thinking about stuff before you write it, you're just way behind the times. You know, it is public life. And, you know, we all live in a public life now. And, you know, you should go and understand what you go, when you say and what you write could go and become public. And, you know, if you can't defend what you're saying, you probably should go on and think about what you're saying.

HEADLEE: OK. That's Johann calling from Livonia, Michigan. Thank you so much for that call. Let me close off our op-eds here, with a - the closer from Chelsea Welch's piece in the Guardian. Again, just to remind you, Chelsea Welch is the waitress who got fired. She's not the one that served Pastor Bell. She's the one that posted a photo of the receipt on the Internet. And Welch closes her op-ed with this: As this story has gotten popular, I've received inquiries as to where people can send money to support me. As a broke kid trying to get into college, it's certainly appealing, but I'd really rather you make a difference to your next server. I'd rather you keep that money and that generosity for the next time you eat out.

So Chelsea thinks that something like this can change people's behavior. What do you think? Tomorrow, we're going to talk about the status of mixed race families in light of immigration reform, when that argument becomes personal. Join us for that. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.