What to do with a bad online review

Tips for “damage control” when faced with negative reviews that could hurt your reputation

Social media is both a blessing and a curse. Promoting your practice this way can be fast, fun, and inexpensive. But social media also provides disgruntled clients with a platform to complain publicly about you, even when the merits of their complaints are specious or entirely wanting.

Negative reviews can damage your reputation, your practice’s good name, and the bottom line. They also can be extremely stressful. This is especially so when the review botches your medical analysis, questions your compassion, or is otherwise just plain ugly.

Here are some suggestions for handling bad reviews and for trying to prevent them altogether.

1) Provide a measured response

One way to vindicate yourself and your practice is to provide a measured response to each negative review. The response might be along these lines: “We are sorry to hear you were not completely satisfied with your recent visit to our practice. We strive to provide top-notch service and the best possible care for your pet. We apologize sincerelyfor any misunderstanding and invite you to contact our practice manager so we may address your concerns.”

The idea is to show you are the voice of reason, the adult in the room. Keep in mind many of the most upsetting negative reviews come across as if written by an irrational, impulsive, and spiteful person—and rightfully so. By providing a calm contrast, your measured response may underscore the dubious nature of the review, leading the reader to understand it was written by a hothead and, as such, should be given little credence.

Resist the urge to respond point by point. This may fan the flames and engender an angry and unflattering reply, placing you back at square one. A substantive response also may run afoul of your confidentiality obligations under applicable rules of professional conduct. So, regardless of how outrageous and frustrating the bad review may be, it is typically best to keep your response short, respectful, and subdued.

2) Appeal to the website administrator

Fortunately, Yelp and other message-board websites have rules and seem willing to remove any outlandish posts that violate them.

For instance, one of Yelp’s many guidelines states, “We want to hear about your firsthand consumer experience, not what you heard from your coworker or significant other.” Thus, if a negative review consists of hearsay (e.g. “My friend told me she took her cat to Jones Veterinary Hospital, and it was terrible”), you may have success in asking Yelp to take it down.

Similarly, Google’s policies for online reviews prohibit, among other things, “posting content about a current or former employment experience.” So if a technician trashes you because he didn’t get the raise he wanted, Google might be willing to remove the post.

For these reasons, whenever a negative post appears online, reviewing the website’s guidelines may be a good place to start. After all, eliminating a bad review without having to deal with the person who posted it is often the ideal scenario.

3) Consider legal action

Sometimes a review may be so toxic or out of bounds that you may consider taking legal action. If you find yourself in this situation, here are some things to keep in mind.

First, determine whether the offending language is actionable (i.e. whether it is sufficient to support a legal claim against the person who posted it). This involves a review of the defamation laws in your jurisdiction.

Generally speaking, an online statement about you or your practice may support a defamation claim if it is false and injurious to your or your practice’s reputation. In some jurisdictions, even a true statement may support a defamation claim if made with actual malice. On the other hand, statements of opinion—no matter how derogatory—generally are not actionable in court.

Second, determine whether your jurisdiction has an anti-SLAPP law and, if so, whether your claim may be subject to dismissal under it. The acronym SLAPP stands for “strategic lawsuits against public participation.” Anti-SLAPP laws prohibit lawsuits based on one’s petitioning activity—i.e. exercise of free speech as to matters of public importance—under the First Amendment.

If the offending online review is found to be petitioning activity within your state’s anti-SLAPP law, the court may dismiss your defamation claim and order you and your practice to pay the individual’s court costs and attorneys’ fees. So this is serious stuff.

Defamation and anti-SLAPP laws are highly nuanced and can vary dramatically from state to state. As such, you should confer with an experienced lawyer in reviewing your legal options for dealing with a negative online review.

Incidentally, suing the message-board host, whether it be Yelp, Google, or some other entity, typically is a nonstarter. The host may avail itself of an applicable anti-SLAPP law and, additionally, is protected against such lawsuits by the federal Communications Decency Act (CDA).

Despite these caveats, legal action may be an option worth pursuing. Just be sure to approach it deliberately and with competent assistance.

4) Take preventive measures

Given the ubiquity of online message boards and the ease with which one can post a nasty online review, it may be time to proactively guard against this in your dealings with clients. Specifically, you might develop strategies for calming cantankerous clients so they are in a “good place”—or at least a better place—when they leave the premises.

This might mean offering apologies, discounts, or refunds when you otherwise wouldn’t in order to nip a potential negative review in the bud. I know,
I know: the thought of kowtowing to a belligerent client is wholly unappealing. But this should occur only episodically, and the value of avoiding a scathing and unwarranted online post may be well worth this mild indignity.

Todd A. Newman, J.D., a Cornell Law School alum, works closely with veterinary practices. He is president and owner of a Salisbury, Mass., law firm (toddnewmanlaw.com) that focuses on business, employment, labor, and litigation matters.

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