Dislike or Defamation – Rules about Online Reviews

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John and Jesper | Thumbs Down by Jesper Rønn-Jensen from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

When it comes to online review sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor, it may be difficult to do to determine when a reviewer is a legally sharing their dissatisfaction about you and when they are out-and-out defaming you. The former is legally protected speech that requires damage control; and the latter may require a cease-and-desist letter or a lawsuit.

One of the best things of out the Internet is that it gives Joe Average people a platform to share their thoughts. Review sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor let multiple people share their experiences with a business that others can read and the business owners can respond to reviews within this forum. They can give you an idea of what to expect before you arrive and whether a particular place will fulfill your needs or expectations. I find it highly valuable, and when I’m satisfied with the service I received from a company, I often asked them where I can leave positive feedback for them online.

When a company sucks, I don’t hesitate to share those thoughts either. I believe that friends don’t give friends bad referrals, and that there is no problem with calling out a business that does a particularly bad job. But there is a right way and a wrong way to do it.

1. Stick to the Facts: Unless you have a nondisclosure agreement that prevents you from sharing in your experience, there shouldn’t be a problem if you simply state the facts of your experience – i.e., the delivery people were 2 hours late, your food was cold when it arrived, the clerk apologized for not having the item you wanted.

2. Share your Feelings: Share how you felt during the experience – you were pleased that the restaurant comped the meal that you sent back, you were angry that you missed an appointment while you were waiting for the delivery guys, you were shocked that the clerk stared at your chest instead of looking you in the eye when he/she spoke to you.

3. Be Accurate: Federal law requires you to be truthful and accurate when giving a review. Avoid half-truths and insinuations. There should be no doubt in the reader’s mind between what you wrote and what you meant. This law also requires you to disclose when you are compensated for providing your opinion – such as getting free products or paid for providing a review. (The penalty for violating this rule is a fine for up to $11,000.)

In general, be thoughtful about what you post online and reading each review carefully before you hit “post” or “save.” If you are making a statement that sounds like a fact, make sure that it is verifiable. So that means you can’t say that a particular restaurant gave you food poisoning unless you can present hard evidence (like a doctor’s note) that that particular meal is what made you sick. Otherwise, you might be better off calling or email laying the manager directly and explaining that you were sick shortly after eating at that restaurant and that they might want to make sure all employees are complying with the rules to avoid foodborne illnesses.

If you believe and online review may have crossed the line from expressing dissatisfaction to defaming a person or the company, contact a social media attorney to review the situation and advise you of your options. With so many people sharing their opinions and experiences on a multitude of platforms, this is an issue that is not going away any time soon. If you want to talk more about this topic, please contact me directly or connect with me on social media via TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn.

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