Internet phenomena such as social media and review sites have given ordinary individuals extraordinary power by providing them with platforms to make their voice heard by the world at large. This is a great thing in many ways as people on the ground can pick up important news in a few seconds and mistreated customers can call out abusive businesses in real time.
However, that power comes with a degree of responsibility as a heat of the moment post on a website can have lasting effects.
The possibility of lone bloggers disrupting sales, or even bringing down a business, should by now be recognised by all businesses. With customers increasingly using online reviews to assure themselves of the reputation of a given business, the presence of a scathing review or blog post about the business can easily translate into lost sales.
Bad News Trumps Good News
This issue also involves search engines, such as Google and Bing, where leading search results for a business’ trading name can often be made up of extremely negative reviews on blogs and forums. Indeed, for small businesses the majority of whose market is online, a single uncorroborated negative blog post may lead to catastrophic results.
The BBC recently highlighted a case in Northern Ireland in which Robinson’s Shoes faced a seemingly permanent Google search result (for the keywords “Robinson’s Shoes”) of a scathing review (2nd result). The complaint having been long resolved, the company argued that there was little reasoning as to why a single customer review should define so extensively the public image of the company.
According to the company, 85% of its business is conducted online. Furthermore, the company alleged that its web hosting data indicates that people have closed their website down after having read the review (after having opened a new tab).
Is Freedom of Speech Bad for Business?
To discuss this phenomenon is in some ways to implicitly debate the extent to which freedom of speech should be curtailed in the name of a business’ ability to make profits.
There is strong argument that such blogging and forum reviewing is merely symptomatic of the market working efficiently; the fact that a business must have likely done something wrong – to the blogger-customer – in order to engage the customer’s blogging apparatus.
But there is also an argument about finding a balance where, for example, a one-off negative customer experience can have a disproportionate long term-effect on someone-else’s livelihood. Or worse, where a vindictive customer deliberately overstates their issue for malicious purposes.
Is there Any Recourse for Hard Hit Businesses?
The particular circumstances of a situation that occurs between a business and their customer will always be affected to some degree by the perception of the parties to it.
However, where negative reviews or blogs are found to be unsubstantiated, there is recourse to the courts in the form of a defamation action. If a business is a victim of an unfounded malicious review it is possible to ask a court to delete the blogger’s webpage.
However, following the Defamation Act 2013, UK companies must now prove they were caused “serious” financial harm by the blog. Furthermore, bloggers are able to raise the complete defence of “honest opinion” that the defendant demonstrates that an honest person could have held the opinion. This defence enables the defendant to rely in court upon supporting facts learnt only after making the statement.
Litigation is not always a financially viable strategy for countering negative bloggers. Likewise, offering up financial incentives for the blogger to take down his/her blog voluntarily will also be unavailable for many businesses. Furthermore, the EU’s “right to be forgotten” rules will not be helpful unless the blog specifically mentions the complainant individual and, even then, only under specific conditions.
Prevention is far better than cure and adopting a media savvy approach to managing customer complaints is becoming standard business practice for business relying heavily on the internet for their custom.
In the worst cases, having a strategy in place and funding for contingencies can help businesses to deal with these uniquely online problems if and when they arise.