By Will Charlesworth of top 100 law firm Cripps
The nature of the internet means that comments about your business can be published instantly to thousands of people around the world. While good online reviews can do wonders for your reputation, negative comments pose a considerable reputational risk.
In such cases you may be tempted to rush to your solicitor demanding action. The law can certainly help, but it’s not always the answer.
Take, for example, a hotel that brought defamation proceedings against a guest for posting a scathing review on TripAdvisor, warning people about bed bugs. The hotel claimed to have suffered a decline in business as a result of the comments and made a bid to claim those losses from the guest. Irrespective of the legal merits of the case, by bringing such a claim the hotel lost a much more costly PR battle. The guest’s defence that he had actual bed bugs, supported by a video of them, gained much wider publicity on the internet, magnifying the single complaint into something much worse.
So what can you do to protect your brand against detrimental online statements?
If customers give you genuine negative feedback then it is really a PR exercise to ensure you respond appropriately. Dealing with a complaint well can turn critics into advocates, and having a complaints procedure in place will help you identify issues before they have a chance to escalate. If in doubt, speak to your solicitor.
While it may be tempting to delete negative online comments from your website or Facebook page, think twice before employing this tactic as it may prompt further negative comments, particularly on external websites over which you have no control. If appropriate, give an apology and state what has been done to rectify the problem. Do not resort to a stock response though as this may appear insincere and cause further aggravation. Try to move discussions to a private platform so any issues can be resolved more discreetly.
Some criticism however may be false or malicious and intended to damage the business, for instance if 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 the statement was untrue and damaging to its reputation. In addition, a business must prove it has suffered or is likely to suffer serious financial loss. If you can do this, the court may order the payment of damages for the losses suffered, that the defamatory statement is taken down and an apology given.
However, there are various defences to defamation claims. A reviewer will be protected if they can show their comments are substantially true. Honest statements of opinion are also not defamatory as long as they are based on facts or assertions that existed at the time of publishing and the basis of the opinion was indicated in the statement: the majority of online reviews are likely to be statements of opinion, meaning there will be no legal redress.
If the author of 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 website on which the offending statement is posted. The operator will have a defence if it can show it did not post the statement. However it cannot rely on this defence if the writer cannot be identified, or if a complaint has been made to the operator about the statement and it has failed to respond in accordance with 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 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 it 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.