When Bad Reviews Hit: Should You Call Legal or PR?

Business.com / Legal / Last Modified: February 22, 2017

Bad reviews can devastate a business, especially a small business. So what do you do when someone falsely defames your business?

Nearly every business must deal with negative online reviews.  The rise of the internet—particularly of social media—has ushered in a new era of public relations. 

For small companies, online reviews can make or break a business; but even the largest of corporations can lose considerable revenue from disparaging online comments. 

Worse, these losses are sometimes the product of unfair or patently false statements.  So what does a company do when people unfairly criticize or defame its good name or employees?   

As a social media attorney, I handle a high-volume of cases dealing with damaging online comments.  I know that the initial, knee-jerk reaction is to fight back tooth and nail, blow for blow.  Why should any business tolerate such damaging and undeserved comments?

Well, while an aggressive response (such as a lawsuit) is certainly an option, it is not always the most productive or cost-effective approach.  Often times, anonymous reviewers can be expensive or even impossible to track down; sometimes, good publicity is the best way to drown out intermittent criticism; other times, calmly and conscientiously responding to a bad review can eliminate any negative fallout and in some instances even engender net-positive goodwill. 

Simply put, different approaches work for different situations.  The real riddle, therefore, is determining what to do and when.  

Related Article: PR Crisis Communication: What You Know You Shouldn’t Do, But Do It Anyways

The Worst Case Scenario

What do you do when a false and damaging statement about your company goes viral?  In this worst case scenario, the destructive statement burns through the news cycle and is reinforced and reiterated non-stop online and offline. Long-time customers switch, new customers bail, and prospective customers turn away. 

Under such circumstances, an immediate and complete response is crucial.  Most of the time, ignoring the statement is not an option and a lawsuit may not be enough. To reverse the tide of ill-will, your company must employ a capable PR firm, hire a reputable reputation management firm (to push down negative search engine results), produce plentiful positive publicity, and build a coalition of support and supporters.

1996 Atlanta Olympics: Richard Jewell

This lesson was learned hardest by Atlanta Olympic hero-tuned-suspect Richard Jewell.  During the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, the on-duty security guard discovered a backpack bomb within the Olympic Park.  Jewell helped evacuate the area before the bomb exploded—saving many lives. 

While first commended for his heroics, the FBI later named Jewell a suspect.  Various news outlets implied that Jewell was guilty and exaggerated the evidence and case against him. Jewell was subsequently hounded by the press for months; his life was effectively ruined. Although the maligned security guard ultimately hired a lawyer and sued several of those aforementioned media outlets (and won sizable settlements in those cases), by then the damage was done.

Kiera Knightly v. Daily Mail

In contrast, when the Daily Mail published an article suggesting that Kiera Knightly was anorexic and that her anorexic example was responsible for the death of a teenage girl, Knightly swiftly sued the tabloid newspaper for defamation. As part of the court-approved settlement of the case, Daily Mail publicly admitted that Knightley does not have an eating disorder and was not responsible for the anorexic teenager’s death.

Knightley also received money as part of the settlement, which she donated to an eating disorder charity. Knightley’s quick response, positive publicity, and legal resolution effectively countered and promptly concluded the defamatory episode. 

Related Article: 5 Customers That Want to Destroy Your Business

The Anonymous Defamer

What do you do when an anonymous individual defames your company online?  In such circumstances, a fully-loaded response is not always appropriate. To craft an appropriate and productive response, the business must ask the following questions:

  • Can the defamer be easily identified?
  • Will suing the defamer give him/her increased exposure, opportunity, and credibility? 
  • What will the cost of a lawsuit be compared to the expected benefit. Will responding to the defamatory post give the defamer more credence?
  • Is it possible to win over the defamer?

First, discovering the identity of the defamer can be costly and challenging. You will have to hire a lawyer to obtain the defamer’s IP address, link the IP address to a physical address, and investigate the individual(s) linked to that physical address. Sometimes, however, the defamer uses a proxy server (such as Tor) that makes it nearly impossible to track down the original IP address.

Even if discovered, moreover, the time and cost to obtain this information, file a lawsuit, and litigate that lawsuit may not be worth it. By using a PR agent to generate positive publicity and creatively respond to the negative fallout, using a reputation management firm to push down the defamatory content in internet search engine results, the company can bury the defamatory statement and expose its falsity.

Simply put, sometimes money spent on reputation management is more productive than money spent on legal bills.

The Black Eye

What do you do when your business has one really bad (but not necessarily defamatory) review that sticks out like a black eye? In these situations, a heavy-handed approach is rarely ever productive. Although the reviewer’s comments may be unfair, they also probably have some elements of truth to them and other people know that. Addressing any half-truth motivating the post in a respectful and convincing way leaves others to focus on the remaining crazy.

The best approach is to respond to the negative post or comment via the following template:

  1. Thank the poster for providing feedback,
  2. Identify yourself,
  3. Empathize with the poster’s situation/concerns,
  4. Reiterate the company’s expectations/standards
  5. Offer resolution/improvement.

Related Article: Just Say No: Don't Make These Small Business Marketing Mistakes

Such a response lets the poster (and other people who read the post) know you care. It also gives you an opportunity to emphasize the company’s strengths. Lastly, the response provides the possibility of getting the post removed.

For example, if a waitress or a cook had an off night (which human error dictates is inevitable), the restaurant owners could—as their resolution—offer to bring the customer back in for a free meal. A good experience can thereby replace the bad experience and a positive review can replace the negative one. Here is a good response by Earnhardt Honda in Arizona, written in response to a negative review:

 “Jay – thank you for bringing this situation to our attention. First and foremost, I would like to apologize for any inconvenience we may have caused you, as well as any miscommunication from our Service Department that has led to your distrust of our dealership. Our service technicians are highly-trained and qualified; I am discouraged to hear of your negative experience. Above all else, providing excellent customer service is our main goal and its unfortunate that you were not treated with the respect that you deserve. Given the opportunity, I would like to learn more details about our case and to be able to make things right. Please contact me at your convenience.”

The worst thing to do is to resort to an emotional and defensive reply. Although often times this is the most natural reaction and other times such a reply is deserved, it is seldom if ever beneficial to business. It reinvigorates the initial poster and causes others to take sides. Worse, the negativity resulting from your response can sometimes outweigh the fallout initial post. 

Conclusion

In today’s business landscape, companies must develop a sound social media response procedure. Research by Dr. Michael Luca, assistant professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, shows that a one-star improvement in Yelp ratings translates to a 5-9 percent revenue increase. Online reviews, therefore, are valuable. Investing in a productive social media response policy will undoubtedly yield high returns.  

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