Consumer reviews are big business. We are operating in a world where a lone keyboard warrior can reach a global audience, warehouses of people (usually in other countries) known as ‘troll farms’ can mass generate fake content, and consumer activism is on the increase.

The growth potential of online forums as a means for your business to engage with, and market to, consumers is exponential. A key focus is how to implement and continually evaluate strategies to take advantage of these opportunities. In doing so, you should be attune to the legal and reputational issues which can arise and the ways in which your business and brand can be susceptible to damage and disruption.

Knowledge is power

You can’t protect your reputation if you don’t have eyes on what is being posted about you. When you are already grappling with increasing legal, regulatory and compliance obligations it is difficult to commit time and resources to overseeing publications. You need systems and processes to identify content and reviews.

Consider using an online reputation monitoring tool, which is a type of software, sometimes freely available, which assists you to identify reviews and provide reports on feedback trends. At the very least have Google Alerts set up for your organisation.

Time is money

Response times in an online environment need to be in real time. Content which is allowed to remain unanswered is like a pebble thrown into a pond – the ripples it creates are all the people who engage with that content as if it were valid and appropriate. Use monitoring tools to identify content and have a process to ensure a timely response.

Taking time to respond to both negative and positive reviews makes good business sense. Think of all reviews as a further opportunity to engage with your customers.

Trash talk is not ok

Gone are the days when “all publicity is good publicity”, you now need to navigate the minefield of false positives and fake negatives. Businesses are able to harness the potential of online forums but they are equally susceptible to adverse comments in the same way as with direct customer contact. The material difference is the span of influence.

A negative online comment by an individual of influence or reach is potentially accessible to the world at large and can be extremely damaging for your business. Depending on the comment, you may wish to take steps to protect your business and reputation.

It’s still okay to have an opinion

Consumers are entitled to their opinions and there are a variety of ways for you to manage their negative feedback. If the feedback is the opinion of an actual customer but is critical of their experience, your products or services – you should respond by acknowledging the feedback publically and providing a limited response. For example, “we listen to our customers”, “we are constantly striving to improve” or “we value the opportunity to discuss with our customers about how we can improve/provide better service” etc. You should then take the discussion to a private forum and work to resolve the issue.

If the feedback is not from a genuine customer or otherwise fake, you need to take steps to remove it. If your business is being inundated with fake reviews you can consider strategies such as geo blocking which prevents troll farms from bulk submitting fake reviews or you can publish your own statement about the fake reviews.

Keep it real

Fake negative reviews can damage your business but false impressions, including fake positive reviews, can also land you in hot water with the regulators.

It is a breach of the Australian Consumer Law to publish fake positive reviews as this is misleading and deceptive. You also cannot curate content on your website and platforms by removing all negative (but legitimate) reviews as this can create a misleading account of your customers’ experience.

"What businesses can't do is self-censor reviews on their own platform as that can be misleading so you can't remove all the negative reviews and leave all the glowing ones”

Marika Hubble-Marriott quoted in an article in The Age, titled ‘'A knife to the heart': How fake reviews can hurt a business’.

To defame or not to defame

Increasingly, feedback goes beyond a genuinely held opinion (both positive and negative) and can be defamatory or misleading.

In circumstances where such content identifies an individual, a business with less than 10 employees or a not-for-profit entity, there may be recourse in defamation. If such content is on a website that you control, you are entitled to remove such content.

A comment can be defamatory where it is not a legitimate review of an actual customer experience but is false, inaccurate or otherwise damaging to the reputation of the individual or business. It is often the case that defamatory comments have an ulterior purpose and are motivated by an intention to cause damage to the business as distinct from being a genuinely held opinion.

Party reviews: a double-edged sword

Consumers can be sceptical of reviews on your homepage and are increasingly using third party review websites to inform their decisions. With shorter attention spans for online content and a tendency to attribute greater weight to negative reviews, how consumers assess your reviews can make or break your business and brand.

It is important to keep track of the reviews which are published on third party websites as any claim for defamation can only be made within 1 year of publication.

In circumstances where a claim is able to be made then a Concerns Notice setting out the defamatory content and the action to be taken should be issued. It is often difficult to establish the author of the publication from a social media handle so any Concerns Notices should be sent to both the host website and the author of the publication.

Take it down!

In circumstances where you are precluded from claiming for defamation, there still may be options available if the content is misleading and deceptive under the Australian Consumer Law.

It may be appropriate to send a Takedown Notice, again to both the host website and the author of the publication if they are able to be identified, to remove the offending content. The basis for a Takedown Notice is usually that the publication is misleading as it implies the customer had an experience with your business which did not occur, overstates the nature of any complaint having regard to the transaction or goes beyond a legitimately held opinion.

The recent article in The Age highlighted some cases where businesses and an individual have been damaged and defamed by fake reviews and malicious publications.