Thursday, October 01, 2009

Taking Online Libel Cases Public Poses More Danger to Reputation

A libel suit filed by a Knoxville marketing firm illustrates the dangers of reputation on the Internet - and how delicate the balance is between solving a problem and perhaps making it worse. reports that a Knoxville marketing firm filed a $2 million libel lawsuit against a former client, claiming comments posted on Facebook and Twitter have hurt its reputation:
According to the suit, [the restaurant owner] defamed the marketing firm in two Aug. 17 Facebook entries that said, "Do not EVER use [-----] mktg. firm!" and "CROOKS! - Stolen email list, and have tried to pressure me by threat of lawsuit to sign a 'license agreement' to use their mktg materials."
The next day saw more potentially damaging posts, of the same nature, naming the marketing firm, and claiming they had “hacked” into the restaurant’s facebook page and taken it offline. (It’s back online, with almost as many friends as before.)

This dispute is probably like many others throughout the country and indeed, may never have been noticed even by local media.

But the kicker is this line from the story:
The posts were published to more than 300 Facebook friends of [the restaurant] and 247 followers on Twitter, according to the suit.
The fact that less than 300 people on facebook and 247 on twitter heard about this fiasco beforehand. Now, not only do tens of thousands of Knoxville residents know about the accusations, millions throughout the world do, since this was posted online.

Before, they had badmouthed the firm to a few hundred people online (and a few more in the restaurant.) Now, not only has all of Knoxville become aware of this dispute, the entire online world knows.

One has to use responsible words even on social media sites, and “crooks!” is pretty strong and defamatory language, and that’s unacceptable.

And making things worse by spreading the defamatory comments has always been a danger with lawsuits.

But in today’s interconnected world, the “audience” isn’t just Knoxville, it’s tens of millions of people in cities and towns across the world who now know what was said, and about whom, making managing that firm’s image all the more difficult.

The lesson here is (from purely a reputation management viewpoint) if the grievance is tolerable, or minor, consider letting it go, or binding arbitration, or a settlement with a clause not to discuss it further or online.

Be aware that your lawyer may see it differently, and other cases may be so egregious that they demand legal action.

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