Negative Reviews: Seeing Stars or Trolls? Here's What You Can and Can't Do
Tuesday, April 25, 2017 at 9:44AM
Admin in Barry Kurtz, Employment Defense, Federal Law, Franchise Law, General Business, Litigation, Yelp, food defamation, free speech, libel & defamation, negative publicity, online reviews, restaurant business, social media

Franchise LawyerChair, Franchise & Distribution Practice Group

 

by Barry Kurtz
818.907.3006

 

 

Trolls aren’t just fictional creatures living under bridges in fairy tales – today they are anonymous but highly visible creatures plaguing individuals and businesses on social media. They’re angry, vindictive and financially destructive, particularly for businesses that rely heavily on reputation.

Franchise Reviews

Franchised businesses are not safe either. Though most customers recognize a national brand as having certain standards set by the franchisor, individual franchisees can still suffer from bad reviews – particularly those in service industries. Bad reviews can infect the entire system.

Recent lawsuits and legislation may address some of the problems of anonymous negative reviews and outright defamation. Most of these decisions and laws benefit the consumer, but there are some practical steps business owners can take to fight back.

Here’s what every business owner should know:

Non-Disparagement Clause Laws

First, clauses written into service contracts to protect the business from negative online comments won’t help. Incorporated into the fine print, this now infamous non-disparagement clause used by a hotelier in New York may have gone too far:

If you have booked the Inn for a wedding or other type of event anywhere in the region and given us a deposit of any kind for guests to stay at USGH there will be a $500 fine that will be deducted from your deposit for every negative review of USGH placed on any internet site by anyone in your party and/or attending your wedding or event. If you stay here to attend a wedding anywhere in the area and leave us a negative review on any internet site you agree to a $500 fine for each negative review.

For a franchise or business owner, $500 per negative review may not seem like much compared to the potential damage bad reviews wreak on future business.

That may have been how founders of Master Matchmakers felt, when the company chose to put a gag order clause in contracts with clients. When one client took to Yelp to express his dissatisfaction, the company responded in kind. The CEO denounced the client on Yelp as well, using the client’s employer’s listing to describe this particular lonely-heart customer as an “unscrupulous business person” who maligned Master Matchmakers for “personal gain just to extort money”, according to the L.A. Times.

Long before this incident though, legislators in California felt a need to protect consumers’ free speech rights. Thus the state enacted Assembly Bill 2365, a/k/a the Yelp Law, in 2014. Other states followed suit with similar legislation. And then it went federal.

Barack Obama signed the Consumer Review Fairness Act (CRFA, or the Act) in December 2016. The bill had non-partisan support.

The new federal mandate protects consumers expressing opinions about a business’s goods or services online – by penalizing businesses that threaten to act on, or actually try to enforce, non-disparagement clauses in their customer contracts.

In other words, companies that include gag order clauses prohibiting clients from posting negative online reviews can no longer enforce those contractual provisions, not just in California, but across the nation.

Before CRFA: Still a Losing Battle

Even before the federal CRFA went into effect, businesses had a tough time proving their supposed right to enforce the non-disparagement clauses in court. For example:

Palmer v. Kleargear.com: Husband and wife John Palmer and Jennifer Kulas ordered products amounting to less than $20 from kleargear.com, paying for the items via PayPal in 2008. The couple never received the items, attempted several times to contact customer service, and were eventually told the products weren't paid for, therefore the order was cancelled.

A few months later, Kulas posted a negative review on RipoffReport.com, criticizing the retailer's customer service reps.

Three years later, KlearGear sent a "Take Down" email to Palmer, demanding the couple remove the bad review within 72 hours or pay the company $3,500 – restitution for violating a non-disparagement clause in the business's Terms of Sale and Use (TSU). Arguments between the two parties ensued, and the retailer eventually submitted a negative report to a credit reporting agency.

In their lawsuit, Palmer and Kulas claimed violations of the Fair Credit Reporting Act, defamation (this story got national media attention) and emotional distress.

A federal court in Utah awarded Palmer and Kulas a default judgment – KlearGear failed to respond to the lawsuit. The judgment was more than $300,000 plus legal costs and attorneys' fees which the plaintiffs have yet to collect.

(This is the case that inspired legislators to write California's Yelp law, as well as the federal CFRA.)

Duchouquette v. Prestigious Pets, LLC: Robert and Michelle Duchouquette signed a $118 contract with Prestigious Pets of Dallas for pet sitting services. While on vacation, the Duchouquettes noticed via in-house cameras that their fish bowl was getting cloudy. Upon return, they gave Prestigious Pets a one star review on Yelp, explaining:

The one star is for potentially harming my fish, otherwise it would have been two stars. We have a camera on the bowl and we watched the water go from clear to cloudy. There was a layer of food on the bottom from way too much being put in it. Even if you don’t have fish, you should be able to see the change in the bowl and stop putting in food. Better yet, ask us how much to feed if you are unsure.

The pet service could have offered to refund the money in return for a better review. Instead, the business chose to “go nuclear”, suing for up to $1,000,000.

Prestigious claimed the contract did not cover fish care, though the sitter agreed to feed the fish anyway; and that media interviews with the Duchouquettes cost the company lost profits, devaluation of its business and other damages.  Prestigious also claimed the Yelp review constituted defamation because it:  was calculated to injure the business's reputation, alleged lack of pet care skills, and falsely accused the company of violating Texas's Cruelty to Non-livestock Animals law.

A Dallas district court judge threw the case out.

Fight Fairly and Thoughtfully

Franchise Online Reputation Management

Suing bad reviewers may be an uphill battle but it’s not impossible to obtain restitution, even from anonymous reviewers. Before initiating a lawsuit though, businesses should ask these questions:

Can the Business Handle the Truth?

Is there any veracity in what the reviews are saying? Honest feedback can be valuable.

Sometimes a slew of negative online commentary can stem from one employee’s attitude when dealing with customers – in that case a personnel change in either staff or management can turn the tide. Similarly, multiple comments about atmosphere could also be a problem – maybe it’s time to upgrade the lighting, furniture, restrooms or lease another space altogether.

Maybe it’s time to improve the menu or offer more choices. Franchisees should consult the franchise agreement and the franchisor to find out what changes, if any, will be allowed. Franchisors are reluctant to make substantial changes to their menus to satisfy individual tastes.

Have Stellar Reviews?

Almost every business has at least a few happy customers. Some of them are even generous enough to share their positive experiences online without being prompted to do so.

Business owners should try highlighting some of these and sharing them on social media; capturing screenshots and posting to the business’s Instagram and Facebook accounts; quoting the text on the business’s website; or retweeting when clients shout-out positively on Twitter. In short, a business should go viral with the good stuff. Again, franchisees should consult their franchise agreement and the franchisor to determine what they can post since most franchisors control system social media to protect their brand.

How Best to Respond to Reviewers?

Businesses should respond with caution, and in a positive way. Even if management responds via private message or email, the dissatisfied customer can still post the communication (or portions thereof) on social media.

Why do some negative reviews go viral? Most of the time, it’s because of the business owner’s aggressive response. (Click: SoCal restaurant rant re negative reviews, for an example of what NOT to do.)

Instead, try something along these lines:

Dear Ms. Doe, I’m sorry to hear you had such a negative experience at our restaurant, but do appreciate that you took the time to point out some problems. We are looking further into these issues. In the meantime, we hope you will revisit us soon, as we are working hard to remedy the problem. Sincerely …

This is a general, public response for something like Yelp or Facebook. Privately, management may want to also offer store credit, full reimbursement, free products, etc. in exchange for an updated review or a takedown of the negative commentary. Warning: Offering refunds in public may encourage opportunistic trolls to post more negative reviews, in the hopes of gaining some freebies. Proceed with caution.

The critical thing for any business owner to remember here, is the importance of monitoring reviews. Management should keep track of what’s going on with business listings on Yelp and TripAdvisor, on the company Facebook and Twitter feeds, on Instagram and Reddit.

The proper response could turn a disgruntled consumer into a life-long fan of the franchise system. The magic remedy may be a sincere reply from the president of the franchise, or it may take 100 bags of sour cream and onion potato chips, according to this post on fastcasual.com regarding negative restaurant reviews.

However management chooses to respond, it’s important to avoid knee-jerk reactions (give it a day or two), and react positively and logically – which means some posts may be safely ignored without too much damage. And remember that some franchise systems prefer to handle responses to online negativity at the corporate offices, while others will allow their franchisees a little leeway.

A business owner who can prove defamation by a reviewer may want to litigate after evaluating the financial damage. The trend for prevailing has historically been in favor of the reviewer, but there may be a sea change as more and more businesses decide to fight back.

Barry Kurtz is the Chair of our Franchise & Distribution Practice Group

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Article originally appeared on Los Angeles Attorneys (http://www.lewitthackman.com/).
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