"I went out for a meal last night, the restaurant was vile. They use cheap cuts of meat and vegetables probably not fit for human consumption. The beef was fatty, I've never had this from other restaurants I've been to, and I've been dining out at places like this for years. The management had no interest in me or my guest, they're clearly only interested in money.
They certainly use cheap ingredients and cheap meat, if it is meat at all, and this isn't reflected in the price you pay - ££££ per meal with cheap goods means they must be raking it in! Save your money and eat elsewhere. Our night out was ruined due to the fact the chef and management couldn't be bothered to serve us decent food. We were totally ripped off."
It's happened to all of us. We get sub-standard service. Once upon a time it was a case of telling friends, and getting them to tell their friends, and so on. Now, the lure of review sites and access to a highly influential blog means we can write a terrible review and it can be seen by thousands for years to come. Dirty laundry is well and truly aired. Before we know it we're complaining our little hearts out online, telling the world of the wrongs inflicted on us in the hopes of letting others know never to step foot in their door.
Hey, it's your opinion, free speech and all. What could go wrong, huh?
Well, a bad review can leave a massive problem for the writer, even if they feel 100% justified in their claims. In fact, the paragraphs above are actually what the legal world would call libellous.
libel 1) n. to publish in print (including pictures), writing or broadcast through radio, television or film, an untruth about another which will do harm to that person or his/her reputation, by tending to bring the target into ridicule, hatred, scorn or contempt of others. Libel is the written or broadcast form of defamation, distinguished from slander which is oral defamation.
"But it's true!" you cry. "Everything is true!" While that may be the case, it doesn't give the reviewer the right to call the brand's reputation into question even if you feel 100% justified in doing so. Unless you can unequivocally prove every statement (can you prove where their meat comes from? Can you prove the manager ignored you? That he was only after your money? Can you prove the ingredients aren't fit for human consumption?) then don't write it.
A writer would only be able to defend themselves if the statements are true, or if they were based on the facts at the time. And although the UK is yet to see a settlement American-style, where writers have been sued in the millions for complaining about services and products, the precedent is being set.
So, what can you write online if you want to slam someone's business or product, or warn others not to make the same mistake?
Firstly, don't be hasty.
Give the management time to respond to your complaint. You may find they're willing to help and will go out of their way into resolving the situation. Don't ever post a review or blog post without giving them time to respond. Seven days is usually adequate. If you feel their offer isn't good enough, make them aware of it.
"Don't ignore this. I have a blog that reaches a wide audience, and I know people who work in the media," is likely to get everyone on edge because it's considered social blackmail. A business with resources and the right contacts may have a legal team on standby ready to go if they feel threatened or pressured into acting a certain way. This could damage the relationship beyond repair and scupper any chances of a resolution. After all, that's all anyone wants, right?
If you must review, make it factual, but only if you can prove it.
If you've given them time to respond and you're not happy with their suggestions, if you've told them so and they still won't budge, then and only then consider writing a review. State dates, times, and record all correspondence. Say you ordered a lipstick online via recorded postal service. It didn't arrive at the stated time. You then follow up by email and they don't respond. The package arrives late, and the lipstick is broken. The online store denies all knowledge and refuses a refund. These are the facts. You would easily write what could be proved and let others come to their own conclusion.
What could land you in hot water is calling the establishment 'scam artists', using hyperbole such as 'the sales adviser screamed at me and duped me into buying shoddy product' or writing a 5,000 word epic. The more words you write, the more danger you're in.
Instead of definites, use qualifiers. 'To me, it seemed the manager was too busy to take my call', or 'I felt the service I received was poor, which in turn made me feel uncomfortable asking for a replacement.'
Be prepared to defend yourself. And be prepared to take legal advice if what you're saying could even sniff at libel.
Ok, so what about PRs, when we send our a product for review and see nothing but negativity? Or if we receive an alert to say we've had a blogger leave a bad review? Well, that's the chance we take with sending our client out to the masses. Some will love, some will hate.
Depending on the severity of the review will depend on what action to take. Most of the time, bloggers will get in touch saying they didn't like the product. You can then offer a replacement. If they insist on writing about their experience, it's a case of just letting it go. However if the review calls into question integrity, honesty, or ethics and could damage the reputation of the client, then contacting the reviewer is the best option.
If a resolution can't be reached, perhaps by replacement, refund or goodwill, then it's either a case of leaving the review online, or taking legal advice. Both have negatives. The online review will be seen forever and ever, which could cost the company business. And seeking legal action could create a media storm. After all, BIG BUSINESS GOES AFTER TEEN BLOGGER is a sure fire way of getting the wrong kind of attention.
Businesses are born from the net, and can die because of it. As long as bloggers act reasonably and brands go out of their way to rectify an issue when they fall short (whether rightly or wrongly), we can keep dirty laundry off the internet.
As you probably know, this isn't legal advice in any way, shape or form although legal professionals have been contacted to verify accuracy. If you're worried about a negative review you've written, get in touch with the appropriate legal organisations who'll be able to help. Images courtesy Kelsey Christina Karstrand and Ralph Hockens.