Innovation@work: Dealing with Negative Online Reviews by Internet Trolls and One-star Assassins
By: Kristin Mendoza
Most business owners and professionals understand and appreciate the wisdom behind the saying: “It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one bad one to lose it.” Building a reputation for providing a quality product or service can take many years. Understanding the effort that goes into building a good reputation, it can be disheartening to business owners when they receive a bad review. If the review is really bad, it can even be damaging to the business.
What is the impact of a negative review?
Statistics show that over 88% of online consumers consult product or service reviews before making a purchase. These same consumers say they trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations from friends or family members. Not surprisingly, surveys have also confirmed that negative online reviews of an item dissuade an overwhelming majority of people from making a purchase. What these consumers may not know or appreciate is that up to one third of online reviews are believed to be fake.
So, how does the law protect businesses dealing with incendiary and hostile online reviews?
Unfortunately, present laws in the U.S. provide very little protection to business owners wanting to address online negative reviews.
The Communications Decency Act of 1996 contains a broad immunity provision for internet service providers (ISPs) and other content-hosting intermediaries that protects them from hosting or republishing speech by online users. In layman’s terms, business owners cannot sue Yelp or Facebook or any other platform to remove harmful reviews that are posted by their users.
Being unable to address hostile reviews at the place of publication, some businesses have begun including statements in their terms of services and other customer contracts prohibiting the posting of negative statements about the products or services received. However, in 2016, Congress passed the Consumer Review Fairness Act which makes it illegal for a company to use a contract to bar or restrict the ability of a person to review that company’s products, services or conduct. Businesses therefore cannot restrict a customer’s negative online reviews through a contract or website terms of service unless the communication is libelous, harassing, abusive, obscene, vulgar or discriminatory on the basis of race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity or another intrinsic characteristic.
So, what are your company’s options when dealing with an incendiary and/or damaging online review?
First, for the negative reviews that speak to a specific aspect of the service or product (for example, “The food was served cold” or “The product arrived broken”), providing a respectful reply that acknowledges the criticism and invites direct follow up with your business is generally received favorably by other customers who see the negative review, and can sometimes even lead the negative reviewer to remove the online post. (Interestingly, customers don’t trust sites with all 5-star reviews as they suspect the reviews have been rigged in some way, so some amount of reasonable criticism is OK and should not be the basis for panic, especially if your business posts sincere responses to criticism.)
Finally, there are the courts. Businesses that have been the subject of truly false and damaging online reviews are increasingly seeking redress through the courts on the basis of defamation. A defamation case currently pending in Texas was brought by a small business owner whose rival purportedly posted a false online review by an individual identified as “Don Henley” who claimed to have fired the small business because he was dissatisfied with the quality of work and hired the rival to finish the job. The matter continues to proceed through the courts. In 2014, an attorney in Florida was awarded $350,000 in damages for false and defamatory reviews by a former client. Even New Hampshire has seen a few defamation cases make their way through the courts in recent years, the most notable being the case against Mortgage Specialists in 2018 that resulted in a $274 million jury award to the plaintiffs.
If your business becomes the subject of an incendiary or damaging review, seek the advice of a communications professional, and possibly even a legal professional, to assess responses and develop a strategy. Responding to these types of reviews can be tricky and you’ll want to avoid doing further harm to your hard-earned business reputation.
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