Avoid that Online Reputation Management Nightmare

By now you’ve probably heard the story. On May 12, a woman by the name of Amanda Bonnent tweeted negative remarks about Chicago property management company Horizon Realty LLC.

Though Amanda only had 20 or so followers at the time, the tweet was sent out to the world and was eventually discovered by Horizon. They then sued her for $50,000 for “maliciously and wrongfully” publishing the defamatory tweet.


Predictably, when word got out, Twitter and the rest of the Internet erupted and dragged Horizon Realty out into the court of public opinion. There, within hours, it was ruled that Horizon Realty overreacted, that they’re a company that picks on the little guy, and that they “sue first, ask questions later”. Oh, and that their apartments have a problem with mold.

Problem is, two days later, we don’t really know what’s true. It turns out our “hero” Amanda has a history (Google cache) of tweeting angry remarks about companies (to be fair, most of us do, including your customers). And our villain Horizon didn’t sue first. Amanda is part of a class-action lawsuit. Horizon’s suit was launched in defense of that.

But none of that matters now. Regardless of who started it, Horizon Realty will forever be branded a moldy property management company that will happily sue customers over innocent actions.

This is why your company needs to be engaged in social media. Because this situation very likely could have been avoided had Horizon engaged their customers. Horizon could have saved their reputation and their brand. All they had to do was reach out in May when a frustrated customer expressed her concerns. But they ignored her. And if they ignored her, how many others have been ignored? Enough to fill a class-action lawsuit maybe?

How can your business ensure what happened to Horizon NEVER happens to you?

Create a social media policy: Whether you’re the type of company that will be actively engaging in social media or not, you still need to figure out how you’re going to deal with it. The Web is filled with hoards of Amanda Bonnents. What role are you going to take? Create a policy for the types of statements you will and will not make, know how far you’ll go to appease someone, and which types of cases you’ll take on and which you’ll just monitor from afar. Your social media plan will act as your road map to determine where you’re going to create outposts, how you’ll respond, and what you’re looking to get from social media.

Carefully evaluate situations: When you find a case of someone saying defamatory things about your company, investigate it. Find out if it was an isolated case or if it’s a sign of a bigger problem. If it’s a bigger problem, you want to work to correct it before reaching out. If it’s an isolated case, reach out to the customer quickly to address the situation and make amends. You’d be surprised how far a simple “can we help?” message will go to smooth over a messy situation. And if that customer tweeted about how upset they were, they’ll very often followup to let everyone know you contacted them to correct it. Do, however, be wary of responding to trolls or people who simply can’t be satisfied. It will just add fuel to their fire.

Contact the person privately to make amends: When you’re reaching out to people, do it privately and out of sight. Put your customer service hat on, let the customer know you’re sorry about their negative experience, validate the frustrations they’re feeling, and then ask for their help in fixing it. Though Amanda had a history of speaking poorly about companies, she wasn’t a troll. She was just one of many, many people who now take to the Internet to express frustrations. Had Horizon reached out to her, they very likely would have been able to remedy the situation.

Watch your words. People are always listening: President Obama learned it when he called the actions of police officers “stupid” and Horizon’s Jeffrey Michael learned it when he announced they were a “sue first, ask questions later kind of an organization”. To say Jeffrey’s comment made things a whole lot worse for Horizon would be an incredible understatement. It’s very easy to let a comment or two slip out in the heat of the moment. Have a policy in place for how you’ll handle these situations can help prevent that. But even after that, always watch your words.

Social media gives small businesses a chance to put out fires before they escalate and are taken to the levels of lawsuits, public squabbles and ruined reputations. But only if you’re paying attention and have a clear policy in place for how you’ll handle situations when they break out. And they will break out. Welcome to the Internet era. 😉


Lisa Barone Lisa Barone is Vice President of Strategy at Overit, an Albany Web design and development firm where she serves on the senior staff overseeing the company’s marketing consulting, social media, and content divisions.

19 Reactions
  1. It is good to have a pro-active approach. Thanks for giving us valuable advice on this issue.

    Personally speaking, my main focus is to point out what you could use social media for in your business in order to generate positive things, develop a conversation with your customers, business partners, etc. But it is important to show what could happen if you are not keeping track of what’s going on the net.

  2. Barking Unicorn, Denver, CO

    Well, no, Horizon didn’t ignore Bonnen (not “Bonnent”) or any other customer. She was the only customer who refused to be satisfied.


    None of the complicated, expensive, time-consuming steps you recommend will “ensure what happened to Horizon NEVER happens to you”. It’s all as silly as building a bomb shelter in your back yard.

  3. Taking the discussion out of the public forum is key for a couple reasons. First, if the communication is private the customer doesn’t have to “front” and will often times be more reasonable. Second, you avoid enlarging the online footprint of the issue. Lastly, most people work much better one-on-one.

  4. Barking Unicorn, Denver, CO

    Robert Brady wisely notes, “most people work much better one-on-one.”

    “Men are cruel, but Man is kind.” Rabindranath Tagore, Asia’s first Nobel Literature laureate.

    However, an irate customer’s first contact – or several – with a company is almost always with a person who is tightly constrained by corporate policy; the product of “Men”, plural, and thus cruel.

    I do not believe corporations are able to empower people to be kind, flexible, or reasonable. These things are simply not in a corporation’s nature.

  5. As we know from “pre-social media days”, email often sparked misinterpretations and was a venue to say things in a heightened manner (way more inflamed then if you talked directly to someone).

    Best way to understand was talk to that person, sort things out… worst way was to respond via email further inflaming the situation.

    So now in this viral social world, best to monitor and get a handle of things. Reach out early. Try to understand issue. Offer direct contact if appropriate. Whatever, don’t avoid. Most disgruntled folks give business an opportunity to respond and correct. But you must seize this window quickly.

  6. This stuff is what makes me nervous about leaving negative comments. I think the key is staying on top of things and don’t ever ignore a customer complaint. Once a customer feels ignored and neglected, that when they’ll lash out as a last resort.

  7. Hi Lisa,

    This is such an important article. The worst lawsuits (for everyone involved) are those started in the heat of anger. It’s a lesson we all can learn.


  8. Robert is right: getting an issue, especially a complaint, out of the public forum is critical. Appeal to the complainer privately and offer to make amends (eg coupons, etc.). Going tit for tat and allowing a matter to turn into a legal one is the worst thing to do.

  9. Brad Bakersfield CA Homes

    I agree that it is a good learning opportunity for us all. If we could always just step back and cool off a little when we get angry I think a lot of life’s situations would benefit. That’s sure a lot of money to lose just to learn a simple lesson though.

  10. RedHotFranchises

    That is very childish of Horizon to file a lawsuit on a little troll. Critiscm is basically part of the daily challenges that every Small Business and Corporations face everyday. We should learn from those critiscms and take appropriate actions to correct them, and focus on ways to minimize complaints, so that your Business may evolve.

  11. Whether you are pro Horizon or pro Amanda one can not deny social media worked, it got people talking and lots of them. This is the beauty and the beast of social media and the web in general. Information spreads quickly, good or bad.

    It use to be unhappy customers could only tell those they came directly in contact with, now they can post something on twitter or other sites for the whole world to see. And if they know how to tag things, watch out, the information can spread even quicker.

  12. We all have a right to speak our minds. And when we do, there’s always someone who isn’t going to like it. And you will always have those who simply seek to “incite” when speaking. But weather or not this woman is an inciteful speaker or not – if she has a valid complaint, then so be it. The world of social media works for both sides.

  13. No doubt social media has a powerful effect on businesses and gives consumers a chance to share their opinions in way they haven’t in the past. Handling complaints shared online is important and can improve a company’s reputation when handled in an appropriate manner.

    I agree with Martin – social media can and should be used proactively and in a positive manner to engage with customers, build customer loyalty, and ensure strong customer satisfaction.

    This article drives home the fact that businesses need to employ a social media policy and monitor their online reputation. With social media, companies may find that when customers do a search for them online, many times consumer review sites will show up in the results before their company website. If someone searches Horizon Realty, conversations about this topic may come before the company’s site, leaving people with a less than positive impression.

  14. Talk about karma coming abck to get you. What are the chances? Very interesting how social media can spread like wildfire.

  15. Traditional marketing techniques such as leaflet dropping etc, is now a thing of the past as people regard this as junk mail hence why there is not a lot of ROI. You should adopt the medium of social media marketing by opening a facebook fan page and a twitter account for your business. This allows you to access hundreds of thousands of people from the one spot. You could also develop a web page or blog to talk about your products and have tag words so that search engines can pick up your web page and access the site meaning more sales. This is very time consuming and can be quite stressful. Good luck and all the best.