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Menacing Social Media: When Your Business is Defamed Online

Social media is a wonderful tool for businesses. In fact, in today’s Internet-reliant society, it is quickly becoming a necessity.

But every rose has its thorns – social media can destroy a business as fast as it can promote one.

In the dark ages (you know, before email, Facebook, and Twitter), consumers shared their experiences with others by word-of-mouth. The fact that a consumer can now share their experiences with thousands at a time through a simple Facebook post is both thrilling and frightening.

Amy’s Baking Company: A Social Media Nightmare

Amy, an Arizona restaurateur, and her co-owner husband recently appeared on the reality show “Kitchen Nightmares” and gave celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay a backstage pass to their failing business.

While the episode created quite a stir, it was the owners’ subsequent actions that received national attention. After the airing of the show, people everywhere took to user-driven websites, like Yelp and Facebook, to express their abhorrence for the owners and the business.

Amy’s Baking Company experienced a social media meltdown. The owners reacted in a less-than professional manner by responding to negative posts with vulgar obscenities and threats of legal action. The documented online drama is a textbook example of how not to handle a social media crisis.

Amy’s Baking Company is an extreme illustration of bad publicity, but chances are every business will encounter some sort of undesirable feedback on social media. Everyone has seen a Facebook post that rants about a bad waitress, the cable guy that never showed, or the dry cleaning service that ruined a shirt. People can get away with saying a lot of adverse things.  The anonymity of the Internet serves as a great enabler.

The key as a business owner is knowing when a review or statement crosses the line and becomes defamatory. It may not be possible, or even advisable, to respond to every criticism that appears on social media, but if a business is the target of true defamation, then action is required.

What Qualifies as Defamation and What Should You Do?

To qualify as defamatory, a false statement must be communicated to others and cause injury to a person or entity. If a statement is true (no matter how damaging) or simply a person’s opinion, then it is not defamatory.

The first step to handling any online negativity is to act fast.

Social media moves at the speed of light—a tweet or YouTube video can reach millions in no time. When an unfavorable statement is discovered, do not fight it with traditional tools. Instead, respond in kind using social media.

There is nothing wrong with responding directly to a Facebook post or Tweet as long as it is done in a professional and considerate manner. It will demonstrate that the business cares about its image and customers’ concerns. If the statement is highly derogatory or inappropriate (i.e., more than a person’s bad experience), ask for a retraction from the site. Some sites are more willing to pull content than others.

If the statement is not taken down and your business is suffering as a result, consider contacting a lawyer to consider what other legal remedies are available to you.

Cindy Effinger

Cynthia L. Effinger, an Associate of the firm, joined McBrayer, McGinnis, Leslie & Kirkland, PLLC in 2012. Ms. Effinger has a broad range of legal experience gained through 13 years of practice throughout the Commonwealth of Kentucky where her clients conduct business. Ms. Effinger’s practice is concentrated in the areas of employment law and commercial litigation. She also has experience with First Amendment litigation, securities litigation and complex litigation. Ms. Effinger may be reached at (502) 327-5400, ext. 2316 or ceffinger@mmlk.com

This article is intended as a summary of  state and federal law and does not constitute legal advice.

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