Protecting the Value of Your Online Reviews

Opinions – everyone has one. But the problem for businesses and their owners is that a bad review or a Facebook rant disparaging your product or service may go viral or cause others to avoid your business like the plague. And this can happen even if there is no truth to the review. For this reason, it is more important than ever before for a company to maintain a good online reputation and what to do – or not to do – when that reputation is disparaged.

Case in point, we represented a client in a lawsuit that involved false Facebook reviews about our client’s professional services and the business. The reviewer, lied about being a customer, misrepresented her identify, and turned out to be the jealous rebound-girlfriend to our client’s former significant other. We were able to successfully resolve this matter on behalf of our client. But this resolution was complicated because the business did not have a plan in place, made several mistakes along the way and was initially playing “catch-up” in responding to the situation (Our law firm represented the individual, not the business – we are never critical of our clients).

On the other side of the coin, as noted by Chris Matyszczyk, writing for Inc., is how the popular online review site Yelp is taking its role in helping customers find positive business experiences one step further by personally warning customers about businesses that might sue them for posting negative reviews. As Mr. Matyszcyk explains, some businesses are resorting to threatened legal action as a means to purge bad reviews from their online footprints (the full article is available here). Yelp wants to guarantee customers with all different experiences that they can openly communicate such experiences on its website. Therefore, it has included the following notice on pages of those businesses known for threatening lawsuits against authors of negative reviews: “This business may be trying to abuse the legal system in an effort to stifle free speech, including issuing questionable legal threats against reviewers.”

While a positive online reputation is critical for a business, it may not warrant a lawsuit against an author of a negative online review. Even a scathing review, if true, may not provide a legal or factual basis for a lawsuit.However, if a negative review is a false statement (and can be proven as such) that injures a company’s or a person’s professional reputation, then a lawsuit can be justified. In our experience, such injuries include showing a general decline in business since the publishing of the false, defamatory post. Such damages may further include claims for specific lost sales resulting from the defamation.

Recommendations When it Comes to Online Reviews

Certainly, it can be hard and costly to eliminate negative posts on a third party site like Yelp, especially through the courts. For this reason, we recommend to our business clients to proactively manage their online business reputation as if it were any other valuable company asset. This includes making a point to identify and encourage satisfied customers to review the business online, whether on a site like Yelp, or the business’ individual website or Facebook page. Flooding the business’ online footprint with positive reviews may make the few potential bad reviews appear out of the norm and ensure a predominately positive online reputation.

Equally important is to have a system for identifying “unhappy customers” before their dissatisfaction festers into the next viral rant disparaging the business. Often, simply taking the time to address a disgruntled consumer’s concerns goes a long way to diffusing the situation. And if not, your company can now be on the look-out and ready to respond.

And in terms of responding, we often work with and encourage our business clients to respond – so long as that response is professional and well-written. As we’ve explained to our clients, at this point, your company is not writing to persuade the disgruntled poster the errors of his or her ways. Instead, you are writing for the larger audience of potential customers. As such, you want to send the message that you care about your customers’ experience, regardless of whether the criticism is legitimate or not, and that your company works hard to correct its mistakes if any were made, or why the poster’s review lacks any factual basis.

For individuals, it is important to understand your legal rights when it comes to making a negative online review. As noted above, a truthful online review is almost never going to be the basis for a legitimate lawsuit. And a letter threatening to sue you for making such an online review probably lacks any factual or legal merit.

For more information on how to protect your online reputation and whether a defamatory review has legal and factual grounds for a lawsuit, contact attorney Jason Shinn. Mr. Shinn routinely works with companies to protect and develop the value of their online footprint.