A few years back, I wrote an article entitled “Only You Can Prevent Social Media Fires” in which I suggested several steps that a business can take to reduce the risk that its employees’ misuse of social media damages the business. Since then, I have noticed a decline in questions I have received from local business owners about the issue of employee misuse of social media. However, I have experienced an increase in questions from local business owners about the best way to respond to the misuse of social media by customers aimed at harming the business.
Of course, not all use of social media by a customer to discuss the customer’s dealings with a business constitutes “misuse.” Customers remain free to post about their interactions with businesses, and often do, so long as their statements are truthful.
But what if a customer makes false statements about a business in the customer’s review on Yelp or in a post on Facebook? As most business owners know, a customer’s publication of a false statement of fact concerning a business may constitute the tort of defamation and permit the business to file suit to attempt to recover monetary damages from the customer.
But should an owner file such a lawsuit on every occasion where a customer has defamed his or her business? The short answer is no. More often than not, an owner can defend the business’s reputation in a manner that produces quicker results and costs less than litigation.
Upon discovering a customer’s defamatory statements about the business, the first thing an owner must do is to assess honestly the threat to the business — are the statements false or just unflattering; have they been read, commented on, and/or shared by others; and are they likely to damage, or have they already damaged, the business?
Often there are situations where the false statements are buried in poorly worded and rambling prose, making the statements hard to decipher. Or sometimes they appear on some remote platform unlikely to draw many viewers or where the customer’s complaint is only his latest in a steady stream of similar complaints about all local businesses he has patronized. In such cases the business is wise to ignore them.
If the customer’s false statements are likely to draw the marketplace’s attention and cause damage, or have already done so, then the business should address the customer’s complaint head-on. Contacting the customer directly to discuss the customer’s complaint results very often in an amicable resolution. Not surprisingly, the offer of a partial refund, even when the business did not do what the customer alleged, often proves to be an inexpensive way to have the customer’s false statements taken down from the social media platform.
If direct negotiation does not produce the desired result, or the false statements have not spread on social media beyond the customer’s ability to remove them before causing much damage to the business, then a business should send the customer a cease-and-desist letter, demanding that the customer remove the false statements and never post additional ones. Such letters usually include both a deadline for the customer to comply and the threat that the business will file a lawsuit if the customer does not comply.
One question I get from business owners is whether the business should respond to the customer on the same social media platform where the customer posted the complaint. While some social media marketers may suggest this is a good idea, I generally disagree. My thinking is that if a customer starts a social media “fire,” then posting a response calling the customer a liar only throws gasoline on that “fire” and makes the problem worse. I am sure there are situations where a direct response to the customer’s defamatory complaint on the same social media platform may work, but I have yet to see one.
Finally, when no amount of communication, appeasement and/or threat can resolve the situation, the business may have to file a lawsuit for defamation against the customer. Filing such a lawsuit, however, has its own set of considerations, which I will address next time.