Has your business ever received a negative online review? This is commonplace, but have you ever received a negative online review when you did nothing wrong?
The public has many opportunities to provide online reviews. Most would agree that online customer reviews provide convenience and ease of research; it is usually a good thing.
But, what is a business owner's recourse when people use these forums to provide inaccurate feedback. Unfortunately, it happens all too often due to spite, jealousy, revenge or self-promotion. Read on, and I will outline Do's and Don'ts in responding to outlandish online reviews.
Option (1) - SUE the reviewer; a Rarity Outside North Carolina
North Carolina affords business owners a fantastic luxury – the ability to sue those responsible for posting defamatory comments online. To elaborate, Anti-SLAPP laws, which exist in twenty-nine states, prevent “strategic lawsuits against public participation”, meaning, so long as the defamatory comment was on a matter of “public interest” people can say pretty much whatever they want to, and the business owner simply has no recourse.
Anti-SLAPP laws exist to protect Free Speech. The twenty-nine states with such laws favor individual expression over the potential harm to businesses caused by such speech. Thus, if you operate a business in a state with such laws, you have few options.
North Carolina, however, is very different. Our state has not adopted anti-SLAPP laws.
What does this mean? It means, that in North Carolina, businesses can sue the person responsible for the defamatory content. This is a powerful mechanism our law affords businesses.
Option (2) – Sue the website:
The Federal Communications Decency Act is a major obstacle for businesses asserting claims against online review sites. This Act essentially prevents service providers from being sued by granting immunity and barring claims and extends to acts of libel or slander. The Act states, “no provider…of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker…”.
Therefore, You, the business owner likely can't sue the website publisher. But, there may be a cause of action against the publisher, if you have a preexisting right to be free of the harm. Such could be the case if you have a contract with the online publisher, whereby the publisher was contractually obligated to promote your business but, instead, published detrimental content.
NEVER have your employees publish positive reviews without disclosing their affiliation
The FTC can hold advertisers liable for “failing to disclose material connections between themselves and their endorsers.” So, in short, businesses cannot provide gifts to bloggers, unless the bloggers disclose such gifts, nor can a business CEO post negative comments about rivals under a pseudonym (as was the case with Whole Foods CEO John Mackey). Reviews by businesses must be truthful and accompanied by full disclosure.
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