Defamation Law, the Internet and Advice
There are almost no cases left where you can own a hotel, restaurant, product, retail business, legal firm, business service, or any other product or service business, where customers or clients have not made comments on some chat room or message board on the Internet about your company. Moreover, due to the nature of business, and of people, there are hardly cases where people have not made negative comments as part of this practice. As entrepreneurs and business owners, we have to watch everything we say and everything we do so that the wrong person is not offended and angered, or it could end up online. This is the way of life for business in the 21st century. Even my doctor has been torn apart by a few people on health websites for giving too little attention, too little time and not providing a miracle cure in 15 minutes.
I have represented entrepreneurs in many different fields of business. Being an entrepreneur, in any field, means you are constantly seeking new ideas, new practices, making adjustments and working with new people. Thus, the risk is always there that someone will be unhappy. After many years of running a business, it is inevitable that this will occur. In the Internet age, it unfortunately occurs publicly.
Before you respond to any comments online- stop! Though your first reaction will be to immediately defend yourself and clarify the incorrectness or untruthfulness of comments, “Remember!”:
The comments are there and are staying there. Your immediate reply will not change anything. You are better to make a slow and methodical reply. Why?
- Your own comments will be there forever as well; and
- These posting boards want you to reply because it increases the content about your business on their site and improves the search engine results of the initial comments made- and, thus, of their own website. The more that is added about you or your business- even your own comments- the better the search results of the comments. Don’t help these message boards to hurt you. Slow down!
Take These Steps:
- Sit with a confidant (your spouse, lawyer, business partner) whom you trust and write a response offline that you and your trusted person are happy with.
- In your response, add links to positive comments about you which have been written elsewhere, or offer to make your own references available to any future clients or customers.
- Make your reply short and sweet. Why?
(i). People will not sit through long essays;
(ii). Long ramblings make you look as rambling a person as the writer of the untrue comments;
(iii). The more you write, the better the search results for the comments;
(iv). You make the writer look worse if he has rambled on and you made a simple clear explanation; and
(v) The more you write, the more likely you can write a sentence that can be misread. Forgetting a comma here or there or not being clear in a sentence can confuse a reader.
- Research into the writer of the comments. If they left their name, which crazy people can do, pull up other nasty comments they have written online on websites, social media or anywhere else and link to it in your reply. It will be inevitable that people who wrote mean things online once have done it before. Though, most times, they do so anonymously.
When you and your confidants are happy with your reply, wait another day, give it a fresh read and then copy and paste it in response to the online comments.
Keep in mind, you may choose to not reply at all. This shows a complete disregard for the comments, which can be good. It also, as mentioned before, prevents you from helping out the site which benefits when you write more on the site.
Finally- here’s one other option: Simply copy and past this, and nothing else, under the comments:
Bringing a defamation lawsuit against a writer is reasonable but you must keep in mind- like everything else in life today- that lawsuit too will end up on the Internet. Plus, in order to win a defamation lawsuit, you have to show how your business or personal financial situation was damaged, and, perhaps, how you have been emotional or psychologically damaged. You may not want this on the Internet either. Moreover, if you lose the lawsuit and have not shown that your business has been damaged to the satisfaction of the court or a jury- it’s all for naught.
Defamation “Per Se”:
Some states allow for a defamation per se claim- which means that whether you have damages or not, because of the nature of the comments, you can win the lawsuit anyway. Speak to an attorney in your state about this to see if such a claim is available and how much you could win from such a suit. If you can only get minor monetary damages, it may cost more to bring the claim then you can attain by winning it. Often, the defendant may not have any money (people who write things about others online are usually not the most quality or successful of people), so you may end-up with a judgment you can’t collect upon.
Bad for Everyone:
People who make comments need to realize that they are doing themselves and society-at-large a disservice. Negative comments hardly affect a large business which can easily ignore or waive off the comments, so small businesses take the brunt of this practice. Everyone should stop commenting on small businesses, lest we live in a world without an entrepreneurial spirit and become overrun by large corporations. For example, if someone writes about poor service from a major home improvement retailer, no one really cares. But if the same comments are written about a local hardware store, it can be harmful. As for the humanity of Internet writers, who knows? The owner of a business could have had a bad day, his wife could be suffering a fatal illness, his child can be in the hospital. So, people should try not to be cruel to others. But in reality, people are selfish, mean and thoughtless, and regardless of how bad a person is, their comments may need to be dealt with.
We Are All in this Together:
Everyone makes mistakes in business. Everyone deals with bad people and everyone gets into disputes at some point in a long career. Do not become forlorn. We are all in the same boat and living with the same issue of the Internet. Business missteps are necessary and in 1965 or 1975 (for example) were part of the game. But today, anyone can publish their thoughts to the world. It is scary- but it is reality. Often, it is the scariest of people saying the worst of things about their ex-spouses, schoolmates, their enemies and businesses. They just don’t care about people. And people still read the comments and don’t seem to care if they know who wrote it. But look at the most successful business owners you know. They rarely are laughing and dancing and happy-go-lucky. They are grizzled, tough, sometimes angry and hardened people. Why? Because Internet or not, they have dealt with the difficulty and ruthlessness of others in order to get where they are. You have to do the same. People are liars. People are mean. But people have always been this way. The only difference is that now they seem to want the world to know just how mean they can be. Strange, but true. So get over it and move forward. Success comes with all kinds of sacrifices and failings. Try, when possible, if at all possible, to only work with people you know or friends of friends and associates of associates. Business with strangers can be dangerous in this day and age. Relationships are everything.
Finally, I will leave you with some fantastic words given in a speech by Rocky Balboa to his on-screen son.
“The world is a very mean and nasty place, and it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently- if you let it……It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. It’s how much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!”
None of the comments herein are intended as or should be taken as legal advice. The facts of every situation are different and should be handled based on those particulars.