Someone posts online a critical comment about you or your company, and it is having a negative impact on your business. What can you do?

Reality Check. Realize that not every critical comment qualifies as a defamatory or libelous comment that merits legal action. To be defamatory, the statement must be false. The First Amendment protects our rights to express our opinions and to share (truthfully) any bad experiences we have with a business. The First Amendment even protects us if we share those opinions and experiences in a tasteless, mean way. Here is a comparison of critical statements that are defamatory versus critical statements that are non-defamatory. If you are on the other side and want to express (truthfully) your outrage about a situation, here are examples of good (and not-so-good) word choice suggestions as a guide to staying on the non-defamatory side of the line.

Outreach to Poster. If you view the poster’s complaint as having some validity; and you can remain calm and objective in your communications, it might be worthwhile to engage the poster in a constructive dialogue. Some companies view customer complaints/feedback as an opportunity to showcase their customer service prowess and uncover improvements for their products/services.

Platform Assistance. Some online platforms will work with you to remove comments that are defamatory, violate the platform’s terms of service, or are otherwise inappropriate. However, federal law insulates platforms from liability for defamatory statements made by visitors. Hence, platforms like Yelp, Amazon, Facebook, etc. have discretion in what they deem as inappropriate and whether they will remove it. Many lawsuits attempting to force social media platforms to remove material are unsuccessful.

Positive Statements. One method of diluting a negative review or comment is to seek favorable reviews. But be careful. As I will discuss further in a future posting, there are right and wrong ways to request online reviews. Doing it the wrong way can lead the Federal Trade Commission to conclude that you have violated its Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.

Reputation Management Companies. There are companies that specialize in repairing one’s online reputation. However, if you do use such a company, be mindful that some companies in this space might use questionable tactics and provide sub-par service. Check references and use due diligence prior to selecting one with which to work.

Lawsuit. If the online statement is libelous, you can pursue a claim against the specific person who made the comment. Even if the person posts anonymously, there are methods of legally requiring the platform to reveal the name/contact info of the anonymous poster. When considering this course of action, one has to evaluate whether a lawsuit against the person is even worthwhile (e.g., what is the primary objective? If it is money, does the person have the resources to pay a monetary penalty if your lawsuit is successful?).