Reputation management in the age of online slander
By William May
Published: 06/01/11 Topics: Comments: 0
With the advent of the internet and online (often anonymous) reviews the goal of attaining and maintaining a desirable reputation for a business has changed forever. Previously it was enough to conduct a business honestly and with respect for customers, vendors, competitors and employees. But now, customers and others can post reviews of any business. Some may be legitimate but many are not.
Every American has been taught about Freedom of Speech and Freedom of the Press. Unfortunately, they have never been schooled in the heavy obligations that come with such freedoms. Journalists are drilled with these rules and taught how to behave ethically and responsibly. Consumers are unaware of the standards to which their speech or publications are subjected and the risk they take in speaking or writing badly of others.
For example, the freedom of speech is far greater than that of the Press. The reasons is that the accurate recording or memory of speech can be difficult to ascertain or understand. But even freedom of speech has its limited. speakers are not allowed to incite violence (Such as espousing hate), are not allowed to lie and cheat a non-public person, and are expected to make statements which are heart-felt and fact based.
Freedom of the Press is held to an even higher standard than Freedom of Speech. Because published or broadcast speech (including the Internet) is so widely disseminated and to people who have no other way of judging what is said about a person, journalists are expected to be more cautious about what the print. The art of journalism has been declining over recent decades with the advent of advocacy journalism, the narrowing difference between opinion and reporting and the increasingly competitive nature of television broadcasting.
The advent of online blogs and reporting have also contributed to the decline of journalism. Consumers, who often think of themselves as journalists and who seldom have an training or understand of their obligations, are anxious to become writers, editors and publishers. This is especially true because the internet provides a platform for which their little or even no cost.
Benjamin Franklin once said - freedom of the press is reserved for those who own one. While this egalitarian viewpoint can be criticized we now see that putting immense publishing power into the hands of consumers who lack standards may be just as dangerous.
Folks who voluntarily put themselves in the limelight by becoming politicians, journalists or celebrities automatically lose much of their protection from defamation or slander. By putting themselves up as someone who others are expected to talk about, by in-fact asking people to notice them, they can not then sue people for talking about them in ways that they find offensive.
Non Public People
So it is into the world of the Internet, blogs and online reviews that most business have been become the target of both well-meaning and criminal consumer writers. The act of creating reviews about a business or product is relatively new. And most recently Search Engines like Google have begun to collect and aggregate reviews making it easier for customers to find them.
In a selfish mode, most of us seem to think that reading reviews is a good thing. We can hear what other people think of that new restaurant down the street. Unfortunately this kind of review creates many risks.
- We are reading reviews posted by people we don't know, even if their logon name is visible.
- Usually the reviews are anonymous.
- The review can be written by a competitor or a past employee who was fired.
- They can be written by people with no knowledge of the product or how it compares to competitors.
- Worse, the unfair power of dishonest reviews encourages those who want to extort the company.
Businesses know that treating customers fairly is necessary. When consumers have legitimate problems with products or services, when something is overcharged or under delivered, good operators make amends to the customer. But what are they to do when a customer asks for far more than they deserve? When they steal from or cheat the business? What do you do if they lie and cheat in order to gain more benefits than they pay for?
That is the problem with online anonymous reviews. Businesses who do not give consumers anything and everything they dream of to ask - can be slammed by those same consumers using online websites.
Slander & Libel
The fact of speaking about someone in order to defame their reputation is called Slander. Speaking the truth is one way to avoid slandering others, but even that is not sufficient. The goal of damaging the person can turn any comment into slander. Smart people don't slander others because they can be sued and will lose.
The printing (Or broadcasting) of slander is called Libel. It is held to a higher standard. Publishers of media who print slanderous remarks can be protected so long as the corroborate that the remarks were made, that they are not hate based and that they identify the speaker. On the other hand, the speaker themselves can be found guilty of libel because they issued them.
In short, no intelligent educated person engages in slander and libel. lawyers will tell you a high level of fact finding is necessary to prove either of them in a court of law, but that is not really the case. Court's have regularly protected people from being defamed, slanders or libeled by others.
Forever and Forever
The trouble with online reviews is that they live on forever. How many of you would like to have your skills reviewed when you were 12 or 13 years old. Surely you have improved your skills greatly over the years. But with Online reviews, you will be judged based on your behavior at an early age.
Or, like a human, you may be judged by the girlfriend you dumped when you were 16years of age, and whose heart you broke. She now has the ability to malign you for the rest of your life. Businesses have the same exposure.
When newspapers publish opinions they will only do so for people who identify themselves and whose identity can be confirmed. They won't publish slanderous or libelous material. They will allow other opinions to be published. Blogs and Reviewers - in fact - refuse to do anything of the kind.
Most websites hope to build content to build readership. Angry and extortionist reviews are embraced because we - as humans - are further motivated to read a website when its full of juicy (even if untrue) allegations. America's fascination with celebrities and the rumors that surround them prove our fascination with exaggeration even if we know they are not true.
Newspapers, magazines, radio and TV get sued frequently for mis-representation of facts, publication of innuendo and rumor. The plaintiffs often win when they prove the media or author had ignored facts and failed to corroborate and substantiated what was printed.
So why don't websites police comments and reviews posted to them? The answer is that they can not afford to. And - lucky for them - the communications decency act says they don't have to. (Don't get the word decency confuse you. The law was not written to protect websites but has been interpreted by media lawyers to do just that. Maybe one day legislative bodies will right this wrong.)
How do online reviews and website fit into the world of Slander and libel? The answer is that they are governed by the same basic rules. Speaking untruths, or speaking truths with the intent to harm others is forbidden. Common courtesy should be employed and speakers or writers should endeavor to be fair minded, courteous and restrain from unfair or misleading criticism.
Unfortunately it must be admitted that consumers simply do not understand those rules. If they did, they probably would ignore them. And with virtually anonymous postings they feel protected form the long arm of legal prosecution. And most feel that they will never be pursued for such things.
They are probably correct. Taking action against the media (website) or the writers would be an expensive process. Just finding the name of the writer might prove to be impossible. On the internet they can easily hide their tracks. Plus businesses who sue to protect themselves may be seen as bullying customers.
So at this time, businesses mostly have had to admit that online reviews -even the most unfair and misleading - are here to stay and that it is too expensive to take legal action to protect themselves. Its kind of like knowing you are going to get mugged and not being able to call the police, or ever see the criminal put in jail.
But business need to take steps to protect themselves. And there are steps which can be followed in order to minimize the threat of unfair online reviews. Here are some:
Best Practices - Always operate the business by being fair and consider to customers.
Fault - If he business makes a mistake, they must admit it and take action to return the guest to their original position. That may mean offering refunds, discounts or apologies.
Overboard - Further it is sometimes necessary to give the guest far more than they deserve. Think of this as paying off a mugger for leaving you alone.
All of these steps are important however they will not solve the problem of unfair reviews. That is because an angry customer wants far more than his money back. He wants far more than the business can give him. He wants - as Shakespeare says in 'The Merchant of Venice" the customer wants his pound of flesh.
And now with the Internet he has a tool to extract that pound of flesh over and over again. And even if he is fully in the wrong.
No business will achieve 100% highly satisfied customers. And every business is exposed to customers who will harass and threaten them. In time, other consumers will begin to understand this process.
More important is that consumers may eventually learn to discern between legitimate reviews - pro and con - and illegitimate ones. Therefore, it is necessary to work diligently to "farm" good reviews from the happy customers to offset negative reviews from the crazy ones.
Unfortunately, happy customers are happy and, without an ax to grind, they seldom leave reviews - even if the business asks them to do so. The should, of course, take the time to post online reviews praising those businesses that they like and enjoy.
It is necessary to practically beg good customers to leave bonafide opinions of the business. Even that won't produce enough online reviews - we have created an electronic survey system which can be sent to guests asking for their review and rating of our company.
Author: William May, MayPartners Advertising
Blog #: 0177 – 06/01/11