A professional and robust Internet presence is essential for any business that wants to remain competitive in today’s marketplace. The web allows for business opportunities that did not exist just a few years ago, and also allows anyone with an internet connection to share their thoughts with the world instantly. The Internet is increasingly becoming the first place people turn in order to shop for goods or services, and consumers are also becoming more educated about their options. As a result, it is increasingly important for businesses to actively manage their online reputations, and monitor what internet denizens are saying about their business practices and quality of product or service. Online review sites such as Yelp get millions of visitors every month, and Google has started including reviews and ratings with some of its search results. According to a Harvard study conducted in 2011, a one-star improvement for restaurants on Yelp resulted in a 5-9% increase in revenue.  What all of this means is that it is more important now than ever for businesses to be vigilant in protecting their online reputations, and also to take steps to remedy any unwarranted negative commentary.

Legitimate criticism or actionable defamation?

Even for the most careful and customer conscious business, there are going to be disgruntled or dissatisfied customers and negative reviews are going to happen. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees free speech, but when speech ruins a reputation or interferes with a business expectancy a person or business may be able to sue for defamation. Under California law, a claim for defamation arises if a person makes a false statement about another party, and that statement causes harm to that party’s property, business, profession, or occupation. Because falsity is an element of defamation, true statements by definition cannot be defamatory. Defamatory statements that are spoken are called slander, and written statements are known as libel. Depending on the circumstances of a particular situation, a business may also be able to bring a tortious interference action against a person or other business that made negative statements online. Generally speaking, in order to claim tortious interference you must have an existing business relationship with a third party, and the defendant must have somehow interfered with that relationship. In fact, in some cases a business relationship may not even need to exist; under some circumstances, it may be sufficient to have the reasonable expectation of an economic advantage or benefit.

Consult with a Small Business Attorney to explore your options

Any business owner knows that his or her business’s reputation can make or break a business. In these days of constant connectivity, Twitter, Facebook, or Yelp, one unhappy customer or client can broadcast their displeasure to the world. Luckily, there are steps that a business can take to remedy unwanted or undeserved criticism. If a person is publishing statements that are hurting your business, you may be able to sue him or her and potentially recover damages due to the loss of business. A court could also prevent an individual from posting about your business at all. To determine whether you have a claim, you should consult with an experienced attorney.

 

 

 

- Claire Kalia

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