Freedom of speech, or of the press. This is a fundamental right outlined in the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America. Unfortunately, many people misinterpret this piece to mean they have full freedom to say whatever they feel about people, policies or brands.
As a business owner, this is frightening. It appears people are at liberty to say anything about your brand, regardless of how untrue it is or how damaging it might be to your reputation.
Contrary to this popular perception, there are exceptions to our general freedom of speech. For business owners, perhaps the most important is this: if someone says something that is factually incorrect or disparaging about your business, it’s called defamation and it can be the legal basis for filing a lawsuit against them.
Related: It's Not You, It's Your Story: Why Branding Matters
Still, filing a lawsuit can be very expensive. Not only will your company pay significant fees to properly prepare and file the case, let alone actually try it in court, but it could damage your brand.
Is it defamation or isn’t it?
Before you start down the road toward legal action, the first question you should ask is, “Is this defamation or isn’t it?”
If the negative statement is true, it’s not defamation. Likewise, if the statement is clearly an opinion and not presented as fact, it’s not defamation. Personal opinions, correct or incorrect, are almost certainly protected speech.
But, there’s hope. Even if you can’t file suit against a person tarnishing your good name, which isn’t always a good solution, or you have decided you’re unwilling to take the litigation route, here are four ways you can actively protect your brand without going to court.
1. Reconcile with the complaining customer
People tend to complain publicly. With social media and review sites, such as Yelp or Angie’s List making it easy for a person to leave a negative review, it can be easier than ever to find when someone’s speaking negatively about your business. For some people, receiving notifications that negative reviews have been posted about their business can cause a panic attack.This doesn’t need to be, and probably shouldn't be, the case when you see a negative review.
So, what can you do? Above anything else, remember this: keep calm.
In your response to the complaint, address the person politely and sincerely. People complain because they want to be heard. The more you can show the person she’s heard in a polite, respectful manner, the faster you’ll de-escalate the situation.
It’s also important to address the criticism head on. Don’t shy away from the claims she’s making. Find out all sides of the story and respond to the allegations directly. It might mean putting your tail between your business legs, but this can often have a better impact on your reputation in the long-run.
2. Ask the site to remove it
If you find out that the review is patently false, ask the site to remove it.
Review sites know there are trolls out there waiting to tarnish a business’s good reputation for illegitimate reasons. That’s why these sites include false reviews as a violation of their terms of service.
If the site ignores your request, they’re then potentially exposed to a defamation lawsuit as well. Because of this, many if not most review sites won’t take that risk and will at least be willing to hear you out if you don’t sound like a wacko yourself.
3. Get more good reviews
Like many things in life, reviews are a numbers game. If you have a few bad reviews but lots of good reviews, the bad reviews can eventually be swallowed up by the good ones, making them small blips on potential customer’s radar. You have lots of happy customers. These people typically won’t mind leaving you a positive review to help your business in exchange for you helping them.
But, most happy customers don’t give happy reviews without some sort of prompt. Ask your customers to leave their feedback -- positive or negative -- on the review sites.
4. Send a demand letter
A demand letter is the first step toward taking legal action against a person for defamation. Yes, I said we weren’t going to involve the courts with these tips, but hear me out. Often times a demand letter is enough to cause the person who defamed your business to at least re-evaluate the truthfulness of a review written in the heat of the moment. Not only does it get the attention of the person giving the bad review, it also gets the attention of the review site where the defamatory review is posted. By simply sending a letter, you can inspire these people to take action and stop tarnishing your good name.
Nothing is more damaging than a negative review. Still, it seems every business gets them once in awhile. Two of the best ways to protect your reputation are: 1) to actively seek out ways to stop the bad reviews before they start or to at least stop them from gaining too much publicity and 2) put your foot down (often without involving the courts) when false or defamatory reviews float to the surface.
MARCH 30, 2016
Attorney, Cook & Cook PC