Dealing with damaging online criticism

16 September, 2014

September 2014

 

The nature of the internet means that comments about your business can be published instantly to thousands of people around the world. Whilst good online reviews can do wonders for the reputation of a business, negative comments pose a considerable reputational risk. Equally, for the operators of review websites, the risk of negative comments can deter potential customers. The key question is; what is the best way to deal with online criticism?

 

Legal remedies are not always the best. Take for example a hotel that brought defamation proceedings against a guest who wrote a scathing review of the hotel on Tripadvisor. The review warned customers against staying there unless they wanted to get bitten by bed bugs. The hotel claimed to have suffered a decline in business since the review was posted and are claiming those losses from the guest. Whatever the outcome of the proceedings, the guest’s defence that he has the actual bed bugs and a video of them has gained much wider publicity. As a result, a single complaint has been magnified into something much worse.

 

So what can you do to protect your brand against detrimental online statements?

 

Genuine online feedback

If you receive genuine negative feedback from customers then it is really a PR exercise to ensure that you respond appropriately and address the issues promptly. Dealing with a complaint well can turn critics into advocates of your business and having a complaints procedure in place will help you identify issues early on and prevent them escalating.

 

Whilst it may be tempting to simply delete negative online comments which appear on your own website or your company’s Facebook page, beware that deleting comments may lead to further negative comments, including on external websites over which you have no control. If it is appropriate, give an apology and state what has been done to rectify the problem. Do not repeat the same response to all customers though as it may appear insincere and further aggravate unhappy customers. You may find it best to try and move discussions with individual customers from a public to private platform so that any issues can be resolved more discretely.

 

Malicious statements

Some criticism may be false or malicious and intended to damage the business. Sometimes this originates from a competitor or disgruntled ex-employee. In such cases it is worth considering your potential legal claims against those involved in its publication.

 

To have a successful claim for defamation, your business will need to show that the statement was untrue and damaging to its reputation. In addition, a business must prove that it has suffered or is likely to suffer serious financial loss. If you can show these things then the court may order that you are paid damages for the losses suffered, that the defamatory statement is taken down and an apology given.  

 

However, there are various defences to defamation claims. An author of a review will be protected against a defamation claim if they can show that what they said was substantially true. Honest statements of opinion are also not defamatory as long as they are based on facts or assertions which existed at the time the review was published and the basis of the opinion was indicated in the statement. The vast majority of online reviews are likely to be statements of opinion and therefore there will be no legal redress against these.

 

If the person who posted the untrue statement cannot be easily sued, for example if they cannot be identified, you may also have a claim against the operator of the online forum or blog site on which the offending statement is posted. The operator will have a defence if it can show that it did not post the statement. However, it cannot rely on this defence if the author cannot be identified, and if a complaint has been made to the operator about the statement and it has failed to respond in accordance with the procedure and timescale set out in The Defamation (Operators of Websites) Regulations 2013.

 

For this reason, if you see a potentially defamatory statement about your business on a website, it is advisable to notify the website operator straight away giving details of why you consider it defamatory and asking for it to be removed. Many operators such as Facebook, Google+ and Tripadvisor have notification procedures in place but they may be inundated with notifications.

 

In many cases a message or letter to the person who made the statement, informing them that the statement is potentially defamatory and asking them to take it down may be enough to gain their cooperation and deter them from making further damaging comments about your business. If not, then think carefully about whether the risks of bad publicity from bringing a legal claim might make a bad situation worse. Legal remedies are best reserved for people who are intent on damaging your business with false statements, not customers who give you a stinking review, however undeserved you think it is.