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Avoid that Online Reputation Management Nightmare

[1]By now you’ve probably heard the story [2]. 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 [3] 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” [4] 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. 😉