Theater executive’s angry email once again raises issue of feeding insatiable web at the expense of privacy

Can you feel sorry for a jerk? I’m talking about Steven Payne, the theater executive at Evergreen Entertainment who told a customer to go [expletive] herself after she complained of a bad experience at a movie in St. Croix Falls, Wis.

Payne demolished every rule of customer service and public relations in his angry reply to the complaint. As someone who advises companies on public relations, I cringed at the thought of having to deal with a situation like this.

Not only did Payne drop an f-bomb on his customer, he insultingly suggested that she should get a better job and invited her to take her business elsewhere.

The verdict is clear: He acted like a complete ass.

Payne realized his error and sent an apologetic email to the customer hours later. But in the meantime, the object of his wrath posted the original, profane email on her Facebook account.

Social media took over, and Payne’s email was soon the object of heated discussion on dozens of blogs and websites.

Most of the comments I read were critical of Payne, although some pointed out that the original complaint was on the caustic side. Still, it’s impossible to defend his response.

But many comments went beyond criticizing Payne, calling for him to lose his job. I have trouble with that notion.

I don’t like the idea of a person losing their job for one mistake, no matter how much of a whopper it was. I feel the same way about the idea that a company wouldn’t hire someone because of an embarrassing picture that appeared on Facebook.

Technology has made our lives an open book, and I don’t think we’ve learned how to gauge our responses. Every day, it seems, brings news of some screw-up or scandal that becomes an Internet sensation — until the next one comes along.

Just last week, a U.S. Olympic medalist — snowboarder Scotty Lago — was sent home in disgrace after embarrassing photos surfaced of him partying at a Vancouver nightclub. I could name dozens of similar incidents.

As a former reporter, I understand that these are juicy stories, sure to grab eyeballs. But they’re the kinds of incidents that, until recently, never would have seen the light of day.

Now there are camera phones everywhere, email trails — and the means to make them visible to anyone with an Internet connection. We’re all losing privacy in the interest of feeding the Web’s insatiable need for fresh controversy, our bad days and embarrassing moments potentially available to the world based on the whim of a stranger.

I’m not arguing that Payne doesn’t deserve the criticism he’s getting. But I can’t help but think this would have been better handled privately. The offended party could have complained to Payne’s boss, and Payne could have delivered a private apology.

By making his actions public, she escalated a situation that, while admittedly offensive, needn’t have become an Internet cause célèbre — and a potential threat to a man’s livelihood in a historically bad economy.

President Harry Truman used to vent his feelings on paper. He’d write scathing letters about the things that bothered him then file them away in a drawer. It gave him a chance to cool off before he was tempted to send them.

In this era of instant communication, perhaps we also should learn to think twice before we hit send. And we should give a little thought to the relative importance of f-bombs and partying snowboarders in a world that deals with a few larger problems.

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Christian Unser on 03/01/2010 - 01:18 am.

    As an avid internet user, I often encounter situations where I consider my actions before committing them to the digital world. Email and social networking is useful for so many reasons, but at its core we are creating a permanent record of the things we say. That’s the crux: a PERMANENT record.

    I don’t post inappropriate things on my Facebook page because I know who can see them. I don’t send emails that could be used against me in some way, even though I’ve wanted to snap off an angry reply many times. Especially when it comes to my job.

    I have absolutely no sympathy for someone who used digital means to deliver an offensive response to a legitimate concern. He shouldn’t be surprised his comments ended up in the “wild”…I have difficulty believing that anyone in a service role could deliver that kind of response to a customer. That email is the proof it happened, and the public pressure is a great way to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.

    I do not have confidence that a company would handle this matter sufficiently without being held accountable from the outside.

    And besides, this would have been avoided if the theater executive had taken your advice before hitting “send” in the first place. I bet he will next time.

  2. Submitted by John Reinan on 03/01/2010 - 08:39 am.

    I agree with you, Christian. However, even though *you* don’t post inappropriate photos on your Facebook page, what’s to stop someone else from putting a regrettable photo of you on theirs?

    We’re all at the mercy of others on things like that. And I think we have to turn down our indignation meters a little bit. There’s not a person alive who hasn’t said or done things they’ve regretted later. What’s different now is that, as you point out, it all goes on our permanent digital record.

    I think we have to be more human and forgiving in how we respond to these things.

    I’m not defending the theater executive’s e-mail — that was hideous. And you’re right — perhaps handling it in private would have merely given the company an opportunity to summarily dismiss the complaint.

  3. Submitted by John Roach on 03/01/2010 - 09:40 am.

    I am fortunate to have a job that doesn’t expressly require me to interact with unhappy customers. However, I regularly observe the interactions of our customer service agents with unhappy and sometimes REALLY unhappy customers. It isn’t rare to see the customer become verbally abusive.

    In spite of that, I have never seen an agent return the abuse in kind. If an agent dropped the F-bomb on a customer, that agent would be looking for another job by the end of the day. That is the reality of most customer service jobs.

    Apparently it is not the reality of a corporate VP job.

  4. Submitted by William Levin on 03/01/2010 - 03:01 pm.

    In 1977, a Chevy salesman in Detroit named Joe Girard wrote a book called “How to Sell Anything to Anyone.” He outlined his Rule of 250. In that pre-internet age, Girard said, a salesperson needed to remember that his/her professional actions, manner and expression would not only be remembered for good or ill by the potential customer, but also would be spoken about to about 250 contacts the potential customer knew best. Because social media magnifies the impact, Girard’s rule is more important today than in 1977.

Leave a Reply