Friday, May 1, 2009

Negative Online Reviews: What Legally Can Your Business Can Do About Them?

The other day my dog was injured and I looked up my veterinarian's address on Google and came across a slew of online reviews about its office on Yelp. The comments mainly fell into the two categories of either love 'em or hate 'em. I read the negative comments (dirty floors, letting dogs run loose near cats, etc.) while also looking at those that were positive about the treatment for their "fur babies" (their word, not mine). Some of the negative comments were years old when the practice was run by a different veterinarian. If I did not have prior positive experience, I don't know that I would have gone there in light of these comments.

With the Internet, everyone is a potential critic -- and an anonymous one at that. For professionals and many businesses, the criticism focuses on service rather than skills or the product or service provided. For example, one anonymous comment on the website was unsparing: "Very unhelpful, arrogant," it said of a doctor. "Did not listen and cut me off, seemed much too happy to have power (and abuse it!) over suffering people."

In our practice, we have received calls from doctors and other professionals (or their publicists) about what to do about negative online reviews. In today’s world of instant Internet publishing, any professional or business can become the victim of an online attack from any disgruntled client/patient or competitor. Because of the nature of online search, negative reviews, blog posts, and comments can quickly tarnish a reputation when potential customers find harsh criticisms when conducting a search for your or your company’s name on Google or the Internet.

There are ways to understand and counter these type of posts:

#1 Understand the law before you take action or hire an attorney to take action. Your ability to sue the Internet service provider is limited by the Communications Act of 1996 which states that Internet service providers cannot be sued for any allegedly defamatory statements. Next review the comment and determine objectively whether it is opinion or fact. The law on defamation, libel, and slander makes clear that truth is a defense. Thus, statements that can be refuted by the public record—like court judgments or licensing board actions—are in one category. Opinions are in a different category and give the writer much more leeway under the First Amendment.

#2 Determine If You Are Going To Accept The Online World Or Seek To Opt Out By Having Clients Or Patients Agree Not To Post Information On The Internet.
Some professionals are having patients and clients sign agreements not to post any information on the Internet as a condition of being a patient or client. For some practices, this may be a solution especially if the professional decides they do not want an online presence outside their own website. Most patients and clients will sign such agreements without hesitation. However, the Internet is here to stay along with the ability of patients to post comments. Proving a patient posted a comment could be very difficult to prove. If adopted, this is only one way to control the issue.

#3 Ask Internet Publishers to Remove Defamatory Information Or Vicious Attacks You or your attorney can contact the Internet publisher in writing and demonstrate that the review has false facts, is unfounded or blatantly slanderous attacks and ask them to remove them. This can be successful. However, many content publishers will not remove material once it has been published unless it is proven to be defamatory or outrageous. Once you have attempted to remove as much of the negative commentary as possible, instead of spending your money on legal fees attempting to sue the Internet publisher, the best plan is to have an Internet marketing plan to push the negative comments and links as far back in the search engine results as possible so they do not land on page 1 or 2.

#4 Monitor Your Online Presence
A key component in any Internet marketing or reputation management campaign is to continuously monitor what others are saying about you online. When and if negative information is published about your or your company, you’ll want to be aware of it quickly in order to take action. The simplest way to do this is to set up a Google Alert for your name and your company name, as well as any other key terms associated with your line of business.

#5 Think Carefully Before You Respond Online Or In Any Other Manner
Unlike a private conversation, online comments will be recorded and leave an online record for years to come. If you read a negative comment about you or your business, gather the facts and have an objective party review your response. We have advised clients in some cases to send an email to the reviewer to offer to straighten out the issue, hear their complaints and this has gotten some to revise or update their comment online. At that point, in the client's response we can state truthfully that the person was contacted to satisfy them and then factually state our client's position. If the response is not handled properly, it can create even more negative publicity.

#6 Be In Control Of Your Internet Presence
Ask your satisfied clients or patients to post reviews on the sites at issue. Have a website or blog or other positive content to dilute the negative information and push it further back in the search engine results. Most people only search the first page of search results.

Any questions or comments should be directed to: Tracy Green is a principal at Green and Associates in Los Angeles, California. They focus their practice on the representation of licensed professionals and businesses in civil, business, administrative and criminal proceedings.  Some businesses and professionals have had issues with online reviews and postings and we have assisted them during this process.


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