Your Brand’s Legal (and Practical) Options for Addressing Negative Comments

by Kerry O'Shea Gorgone

7468312536_638cf71b6d_zSooner or later, your brand will receive a negative comment or bad review. Some posts will come from actual customers, others from competitors hoping to poach your customers.

Still others will come from trolls: people who have never bought from you, will never buy from you, and seemingly have nothing better to do than make your brand manager’s life difficult.

Regardless of who made the post, your reaction is likely to be the same: a deep longing for the post to disappear. But it won’t.

Here are your options for addressing damaging comments online, from least feasible (a lawsuit) to least palatable (taking the high road).

When can you sue?
People and brands alike must suffer a certain number of “slings and arrows.” Just because someone thinks your service is slow or your fries are soggy doesn’t give rise to a legal cause of action.

Once the comments move from obnoxious to defamatory, however, suing might become an option. Laws vary from state to state, but in most jurisdictions, defamation requires a false statement of fact (as opposed to an opinion), publication (communication of the false statement to at least one other person), negligence (if the defamatory matter is of public concern), and damage to the brand’s reputation.

Think “this finance company steals money from client accounts” as opposed to “this finance company sucks.”

You could issue a cease and desist letter to the person who posted the comments, but be aware that many such letters wind up featured on the person’s blog, or on third-party sites like Techdirt.

Ultimately, if the false statements really are damaging to your brand, you might have to bring suit, but you’ll want to carefully consider the implications before you do.

In the United States, the plaintiff must prove that the statements were false (as opposed to the burden being on the defendant to prove that they were true). In some jurisdictions, companies must meet the same standards as a public figure or celebrity in order to recover damages, and show that the person making the statement did so with “actual malice,” knowing it was false or exhibiting a “reckless disregard” for the truth.

In addition to the costs inherent in litigation, you could easily find your company cast as the bully in a David vs. Goliath type conflict, as we saw in the case of a Missouri bar owner who received a cease and desist letter from Starbucks.

Instead of suing, what should you do?
Respond. More than 1/3 of people who mention a brand on a social network expect a reply in 30 minutes or less (like a pizza delivery)!

As quickly as possible, post a reply to the comment on the same site where it was made. If the comments are in a Facebook post, reply on Facebook. If it was a Yelp review, reply on Yelp.

If the comments are on someone’s blog, contact the publisher directly, or post a comment on that site, but keep a screen shot in case they delete it.

Bear in mind that some people who post negative comments about your brand have a legitimate grievance. You will provide a better response if you write your reply with his in mind.

Brands do have some options when it comes to addressing defamatory statements. If the comments are posted to a third-party site like Yelp, you can contact the site to request that they be removed.

Be prepared to explain precisely how the comments posted violate the site’s terms of service. To report a defamatory review on Yelp, for instance, you’d select “Questionable Content” or “Legal Inquiries” from the drop-down menu provided and report the objectionable post as violating Yelp’s terms of service, section 6(a)(I) on content guidelines.

Be sure to give specifics about what the commenter said, and emphasize that it is both false and damaging.

Google has a form users can complete to request that information be removed. Facebook and Twitter provide options for reporting abusive posts, pages, accounts, etc. If the damaging review is posted on a blog, you can request the hosting company to remove a defamatory post.

In most instances, the costs of bringing a lawsuit will outweigh the benefit, and might even bring more attention to the negative comments about your brand. When defending your brand against online comments, consult with an attorney in your jurisdiction.

Ultimately, the best protection against negative comments is a healthy dose of goodwill. Invest time now—before a crisis hits—cultivating a closer relationship with fans of your brand, so they can be your first line of defense if the trolls attack.

Connect with your fans now, before you need them to rally to your brand’s defense: you’ll be glad you did!

Pic via Flickr user DonkeyHotey

Kelly March 19, 2014 at 8:52 am

This is a great article, Kerry, thank you. I’m tucking it away for future reference!

Your advice on responding on quickly as possible is a life saver. In fact, even if it is 8 hours later due to a time zone difference, show your presence. It is never too late. I have gone back days later to third party sites to offer a direct line of communication and have been successful in opening up dialog to remedy the situation, starting with offering a direct line to me.

The severity of the complaint depends on if I can act alone, or if I need to confer with my team and even legal, but the end result is always the same: an invitation to contact me/us at a direct email address.

By doing so it shows
– I am not afraid of confronting whatever issue, misunderstanding, gripe (or even mistruth) they are voicing
– I am sincere in wanting to help — I’ve just offered a private email address
– it leaves closure and transparency for other commenters to view.

I find that community rallies strongly around brands or people that try to resolve issues in a positive way, especially if the remarks are negative, rude or extreme. Commenters don’t always take up my offer to talk and that’s okay. I know that I have opened the door and that is the first step as well as closed the loop on the negative communication.

I have had the instance where they have bantered on disregarding our invitation to speak altogether. An email to the site owner with proof of our steps to remedy the situation resulted in immediate removal of the comments.

Mack Collier March 19, 2014 at 12:43 pm

Hi Kelly, I agree, great point about responding quickly. If you ignore that one negative comment, you may find yourself dealing with 5 negative comments instead! By then it’s too big not to ignore so it’s best to respond to the first one. And you’re exactly right, if a brand responds appropriately, other people pick up on that and will often rally to the brand’s defense. I always tell brands that THEY have the power to decide if a negative comment turns into a ‘social media firestorm’, by HOW they respond.

Kerry O'Shea Gorgone March 19, 2014 at 1:18 pm

Great comment, Kelly! Very thoughtful stuff. Sounds like you’re approaching it in exactly the right spirit: with an offer to help.

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