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Responding to Negative Online Comments

Every business owner fears reading a negative online review or social media post.  It can damage your reputation, dissuade potential customers, and consume valuable staff time figuring out how to respond.  Sometimes, the worst part about the negative comment is that it is anonymous—you cannot even verify the source.
You have probably wondered whether there are legal steps you can take to remove negative online comments. 
Unless the comment rises to the level of defamation, which is unlikely given the high threshold for defamation, the answer is no. 
Last week, a decision from New York’s highest court underscored the protection afforded online comments.  The Court struck down New York’s cyberbullying law on the grounds that it violates the First Amendment’s Freedom of Speech provision.  This decision resulted in the acquittal of a student who had created a Facebook page which included graphic sexual comments alongside photos of his high school classmates.
So, what can you do about a negative online review or social media post? 
Here are a few suggestions:

•    Encourage Positive Reviews.  The best way to get rid of the negative comment is to drown it out with positive comments.  When potential customers look at your Facebook or Yelp profile and see only one review, which happens to be the negative one, they may take their business elsewhere.  But if a potential customer looks at your profile and sees ten positive reviews and only one negative review, the potential customer is more likely to give you a chance.
•    Engage the Commentator.  This tactic works particularly well for social media, which is seen as a tool for a dialogue between businesses and customers.  Proactively engaging the online commentator, in a diplomatic manner, may help you assess whether the person’s comments are legitimate.  With valid criticisms, you might be able to improve business operations.  Additionally, by showing you are engaged and willing to address customers’ concerns, it may also help you win over the negative commentator and/or future customers.

•    Flag It.  If the online post is legitimately spam, particularly if the posts are anonymous, work with the host company, be it Yelp or Facebook or Google.  They might be able to take down the post or restrict the commentator’s future use.
One thing you absolutely should not do?  Create a fake online persona to respond to or attack the commentator.  Not only will it make you look bad when you are discovered, it is also potentially illegal (more on that in a future ETT).
It always hurts to see a negative review of your business, particularly if it is an anonymous complaint, but the First Amendment protects people’s freedom of speech.  And as speech moves into the cyber world, so has this constitutional guarantee. 
If you are being hurt by negative online comments and have questions about how to respond, contact a member of our Emerging Technologies Practice Group.