Navigating the Laws and Practical Implications of Online Reviews

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By Paige Zandri
| Business and Entrepreneurship

Negative Online Reviews

In the age of social media validation and information crowdsourcing, online reviews are an essential part of the collective consumer conscience. While positive reviews can influence and drive sales, just one abysmal review can be the poison pill that sets you more than two steps back. Given the importance of a clean and popular online image, it follows that companies are investing significant resources toward managing and troubleshooting online communities and reputations. Perhaps there is no perfect science, but there are things you can know to try and keep yourself out of muddy water and capitalize on the opportunity to convert positive feedback into increased sales.

Negative Reviews

It’s only natural to react impulsively about a negative online review. You may consider responding directly to the author of the review, or try to coordinate with a third-party site that published it to try and have it removed. Maybe you feel your company has been so defamed that you want to run straight to the courthouse. Before taking up arms, consider these threshold questions.  

  • Fact or Opinion? Is the review based on factual allegations, or does it merely state an opinion? If it’s the latter, a legal claim for defamation is likely not actionable and could cost you more in the end. If the review is factual, and the allegations are true, again, it is unlikely that you have an actionable claim for defamation. However, if the complaints are based on untrue or grossly exaggerated allegations, then there may be some legal recourse. As discussed further below, litigation or threats of litigation against a negative reviewer often present additional challenges for a business, so weighing the advantages is important..
  • Helpful Feedback or a Senseless Rant? Not all negative reviews are necessarily bad for business. In some cases, a less than stellar review can open opportunities for growth. The benefit of online reviews, no matter what side they fall on, is that they are a direct line to your end-user in a feedback loop. Customers who thoughtfully share poor experiences through online reviews may expose certain weaknesses or areas for improvement that businesses may otherwise have never identified. It is also an opportunity to communicate directly with that consumer, change their experience, and hopefully have the rest of the online community as witnesses waiting to applaud. Of course, certain customers will inevitably express general anger with a company. Often these reviewers provide no specifics and seem more concerned with venting, rather than providing constructive feedback. These reviews are relatively more difficult to digest in terms of online PR, but you should check your branding strategy as well as consult with your lawyer to see what can be done.

Once you have evaluated the nature of the review as fact or opinion, constructive or senseless, you can begin to think about your plan of action. Keep these options in mind as you generate a strategy:

  • Directly Respond to the Consumer. Should you choose to engage directly with the reviewer by replying via a third party site, such as Yelp or TripAdvisor, your guidepost is to maintain professionalism. This includes responses to reviews that are completely unfounded or unfair. Remember, your audience is watching, and the objective is to minimize damage. Is there any chance of turning a negative review into an opportunity or rewarding a positive review? There are a lot of options to engage your audience.  
  • Appeal to the Online Platform. It is unlikely that any online review site will take a review down simply because the company doesn’t like the negative feedback. Keep in mind that most online platforms have an interest in objectivity even if you feel the review may impact you adversely. However, if the language in the review is in violation of the site’s terms of use, then you may want to consider contacting a lawyer about having it taken down.
  • Threaten or Commence Litigation. Companies should take serious care before threatening or filing a suit against the author of a negative review. First of all, there is inevitably a significant cost, at least initially, associated with pursuing a lawsuit. Secondly, and sometimes more importantly, litigation is generally on public record and can draw additional unwanted attention to the negative review. Such an aggressive response can be further damaging to the company’s reputation, as it can be seen as an attempt to silence any opposition. Again, it’s advisable to consult with both a public relations expert as well as an attorney when deciding whether litigation is the right move.

When faced with a negative review, businesses have various options for responding. As a general practice, it may be helpful to create an online reputation management policy to allow your company to respond to negative reviews in a thoughtful, consistent, and company-sanctioned manner. Together with your PR or marketing experts, your lawyer can help devise an action plan to have at the ready in the event you find yourself in hot water, or standing in front of an opportunity.

 

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