Negative Online Reviews of Your Business: Dissatisfied Does Not Necessarily Mean Defamatory | Bodman

If you own a small business, someone has probably posted an online review of your business and its products or services. From Yelp and TripAdvisor to Angie’s List and a number of websites geared towards particular industries or interests, online reviews can have a profound effect on your business. When word of mouth is heard around the world and resonates forever on the internet, even one negative opinion can be devastating.

Many business owners who see 1 star reviews or shocking comments naturally want to mitigate the damage they can inflict. But how a business responds to a bad online review can be just as impactful as the review itself. Attempts to counter or respond to a disgruntled customer by voice can end up magnifying the review or subjecting the business to further contempt, ridicule, and bad publicity in a temperamental and fast-paced social media universe.

Every now and then, we get a call from a client who is deeply concerned, angry, or outraged by a scathing criticism and wants to sue the poster for defamation. The answer is, of course, yes. You can sue “YourBusinessIsAwful123” or whoever posted the message. Anyone can sue anyone for anything, but that doesn’t mean a case is founded or that it is a commercially smart decision. When it comes to suing someone for posting a negative review, the reality is that much of what critics write, even the most scathing negative reviews, is unlikely to be considered punishable defamation. of prosecutions.

Additionally, business owners typically cannot take legal action against an online review site or search engine where reviews appear. Such entities are immune from liability for defamatory comments in reviews under federal law. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act protects these sites from claims based on comments posted by third parties. But the examiner does not enjoy such immunity. On the contrary, they are often protected by defamation law, which places a heavy burden of proof on the complainant.

Elements of Commercial Defamation in Michigan

In Michigan, a company suing an online critic for libel must prove:

  • The examiner has made a false and defamatory statement about your business.
  • The statement was an unprivileged communication to a third party.
  • The Examiner was at least negligent as to the veracity of the statement.
  • The company suffered damage as a result of the defamatory statement.

Failure to prove this first element – that the statement in the review was “false” – condemns many, if not most, corporate defamation complaints.

Provenable fact c. Opinion

To be considered defamatory under Michigan law, a statement must assert facts that are “provable as false.” Opinions, no matter how detailed or devastating, cannot be wrong. Only false statements of fact can form the basis of a defamation complaint, not opinions. Consider the following two hypothetical restaurant reviews:

“The decor was lousy, the service was inattentive and rude, and the meal was gross and bland.

“The waiter spat on my food and the host called me a racial insult.”

The first comment is an opinion without action, as it cannot be objectively proven that the meal was “disgusting” or that a waiter was “rude.” These are entirely subjective opinions; neither party will present evidence at trial. regarding what constitutes “disgusting”.

Conversely, this latter review contains statements of fact. Either the waiter spat on the food or he didn’t. Either the host used a racial insult or did not. If the restaurant can prove that either of these things didn’t happen, it will likely be successful if it can prove the other elements of defamation.

Options other than a libel suit

The bottom line for business owners is that a libel lawsuit in response to outrageous reviews and comments on the Internet may not be the best solution. While some false statements of fact in such comments can form the basis of a defamation complaint, business owners and professionals alike should carefully consider how to proceed in the event their response makes a bad situation worse.

If you are concerned about a negative review, you can ask the review website or search engine to remove the review if it violates their terms of service. You can, of course, respond directly to the review where it was posted, but remember that it will be seen by anyone who views your reviews. If you get into an argument with the customer, or appear hostile or mean, you are doing yourself a disservice.

Instead, you might want to suggest in a response that the reviewer take the conversation offline. If they agree, ask them to expand on their experience. Listen with respect and listen to them. Often times, civil, empathetic conversation can clear the air, bury the hatchet, and cause the poster to change or remove its review, sometimes without you having to say anything. If you must respond to what you hear, do so calmly and sensibly.

But be careful. If the reviewer had no qualms about sharing his thoughts with the world, he wouldn’t hesitate to share your answer if it made you look bad. Approach every interaction as if the general public is going to see it. If what you’re saying or writing isn’t something you want other customers to see, you probably shouldn’t be saying or writing it.

When they go down, get your other customers up

When a customer gets low and negative in a review, having ten customers who go high and post positive reviews can be the best way to fight back.

Most consumers know that you can’t please everyone. If you read reviews for your favorite restaurant, bookstore, or watering hole, you’ll undoubtedly see at least one article that describes it in a way that bears little resemblance to the business you love.

But if bad reviews are the only ones people see, they will have a disproportionate impact. Most of your customers probably have wonderful things to say about your business. Don’t hesitate to ask them to share their thoughts with the world by posting positive comments in a brief review. Provide them with instructions and links to make it as easy as possible for them.

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