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Responding to Negative Online Reviews

Wednesday, September 30, 2015  
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You work hard to create the right experience for your customers. And then, someone writes a scathing review on Facebook. Don’t despair. There are steps you can take to respond to those negative online reviews, protect your hard-earned reputation, and perhaps turn a negative into a positive. Can I sue the scoundrel? Sure, but it isn’t easy. A business suing for a negative online review must prove:
  • The review contained an untrue statement of fact that cast you in a negative light.
Opinions or hyperbole are not defamatory. But truth or “substantial truth” is a defense.
  • The review was published to a third party without authorization.
If the statement is just communicated to you, then it isn’t defamation. Posting it on a public site for others to see without your permission constitutes publication.
  • The author knew the statement was false or acted with reckless disregard for the truth.
Businesses typically are considered “public figures,” which means that you have to show the poster knew the statement was false or entertained serious doubts about the truth of the statement but made it anyway.
  • The statement caused actual damages or defamation per se.
Unless the statements impute professional misconduct, criminal conduct, sexual misconduct, or a loathsome disease (defamation per se), you must show that the post caused actual damages, which means your business suffered lost sales as a direct result of the statement. Besides determining if you have a claim, there are other factors to consider. In most cases, federal law prevents you from suing the site where the post was published.  Also, many posters use pseudonyms, and it is difficult (or perhaps impossible when dealing with masking sites) to find the actual identity of the poster. And, there are attorney fees to consider as well as whether you can collect from the poster even if you do win. Despite these challenges, businesses have been filing suits — and with occasional success. However, it takes a case with the right facts, and those are rare. I don’t want to pay for my lawyer’s vacation, what else can I do? Self-help within the bounds of a law can be effective. Read the review site’s terms of use and see if the post complies. If not, an email to the site operators could get the post removed. Another approach is to fight back and respond. If you do, follow some basic rules:
  • Be engaged: You can’t fight false online reviews unless you are monitoring social media. Set up a Google alert and read posts and reviews about your business.
  • Be selective: Not every negative comment deserves a response. If it is on a really small blog that few will read, or if it's a blatant attack that reasonable people will discount, or the writer/poster is a known repeat critic — just ignore it.
  • Be swift: Letting a credible-sounding negative review linger hurts. At a minimum, acknowledge it, indicate that you are looking into it and will respond promptly, and provide contact information if they want to reach you offline. This will likely buy you time to investigate.
  • Be fair: Investigate and, if you are wrong, acknowledge it with a real apology posted on the site and offer to make it right.
  • Be strong: If you did nothing wrong, there is no need to apologize. Explain your view in a fair and respectful manner and invite the poster to engage in a conversation.
  • Be smart: The person who responds to posts on your social media represents your business and should be able to communicate effectively on your behalf.
Negative posts on social media bother all types of businesses and professionals. The law continues to change on the rights and responsibilities of posters, sites and businesses. Consulting with a knowledgeable professional about your options is the best way to protect yourself. This post was provided by James Dimosa member of the Frost Brown Todd law firm in Indianapolis. This article is general legal information and should not be considered legal advice. 

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