Vendor Reviews and Online Libel Laws

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

One of the questions I get asked often is along the lines of "is it legal for a bride to say whatever she wants about me online?".  The answer is no, a bride cannot say whatever she wants to online, in fact no one can.

General rule of thumb: online libel and defamation laws are pretty much the same as offline libel and defamation laws. If a newspaper or magazine can be sued for printing it, then you can be as well for posting it on your blog, vendor review site or any other online media outlet (Twitter, Facebook, Friendfeed, etc).  (For a quick, layman's term explanation of online defamation laws, you can check out this website. As always, talk to your attorney to get the full details for your particular company and situation.)

Whatever claims a bride makes about you or your company in her vendor reviews or anywhere online (even if just angrily posting to Facebook) have to be factual or very clearly framed by her as her personal opinion.  Those opinions also have to be backed up if they can be construed as fact.

For example, if a bride says "In my opinion, XYZ Photographers were unprofessional", she has to be able to say why she thought they were unprofessional. Otherwise, the photographers are able to claim that she is damaging their professional reputation even though it is prefaced with "in my opinion".

If a bride writes a review that says: "I was unhappy with John Smith DJ's because they called our wedding party out of order during the grand entrance and didn't play the songs requested", that is permissible because it can be proven.  Both the bride and the DJ can produce copies of timelines, song lists, etc and it can easily be determined if the actions the DJ was to take were clearly communicated prior to the wedding.  If she had included something like "the DJ was such a jerk and is a liar", then that can be claimed as defamatory, especially if the DJ can refute all claims of being a liar with factual information.

Also as long as the person or company being written about is "reasonably identifiable", a person can't state something defamatory and be off the hook simply by not naming your company specifically.  So if a bride made the above statements about the DJ without naming him, but that information could be easily found by looking up the photographer's blog to see who the vendors were, then her latter statement ("jerk and a liar") could still be construed as defamatory.

Many vendor review sites have policies in place that allow the vendors to respond to claims so that readers can view both sides of the story.  If you are ever in a position where you need to reply to a review, be sure to leave all emotion out of your response and include only the facts. Keep notes in your CRM of your activity (ex: September 18, 2009 9:03 AM - left voicemail; September 19, 2009 10:00 AM - left message with Holly.) so that if a claim says that you are a liar because you didn't call when you said you would, you have records showing otherwise easily on hand (the facts of which can also be proven by the outbound call log on your phone statement).

A note on a related topic that comes up often: if you think that a competitor is posing as a bride and leaving false reviews about your company, contact your attorney and the site owners directly to address those concerns.  Sites that are set up for vendor reviews (as well as most blog commenting systems) track IP addresses, so the reviews are never truly anonymous, even when written under a false name. 

Have any of you ever had issues with false reviews online? What did you do about it?

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