Are You Careful (Enough) In How You Phrase an Online Review?

Think before you post a negative online review. You CAN be sued for what you write on Facebook, Twitter, Yelp, Angie's List, or any other online review site.

Think before you post a negative online review. You CAN be sued for what you write on Facebook, Twitter, Yelp, Angie’s List, or any other online review site.

A writer friend of mine called me this morning before 9 a.m. I knew it was important, because when a writer picks up the phone that early in the morning, it usually involves blood or at least gore.

Not this time. My friend called to say that she hated me, because I was right about something she’d written. She was out of town most of the week, and got home to find that she is being sued by a publisher over a warning she posted on her personal blog after a bad experience with the publisher.

When I saw it a couple of weeks ago, I had called her and suggested a relatively minor rewrite because that publisher is known to file SLAPP suits against those who attempt to expose their shoddy business practices.  But she asserted that she had “told the absolute truth, so there’s no way that the publisher could prevail.”

“Prevailing” isn’t usually the point of a SLAPP suit.  Shutting up a critic by burying them in expensive legal paperwork is the point.  Wikipedia defines a SLAPP suit this way: “A strategic lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP) is a lawsuit that is intended to censor, intimidate and silence critics by burdening them with the cost of a legal defense until they abandon their criticism or opposition.”

In a lawsuit over something you post online, it can be harder than you think to prove your case. So when you get sued, hiring a good lawyer is essential, and that can quickly get very expensive. My excellent attorney charges $280 per hour to keep me out of trouble.

A SLAPP suit can cost upwards of $20,000 to defend — even more if it goes to trial.  Most bloggers, writers, and ordinary citizens who post reviews on Yelp, comments on Facebook, or write about their personal experiences with companies on a blog like this one can’t afford to defend against a SLAPP suit, so they settle by removing the offending comments, issuing an apology, or even agreeing to pay a  settlement to make the litigation go away.

It’s nearly impossible to find an attorney who can afford to handle a SLAPP suit on a contingent fee basis or at no cost (pro bono). That’s because the strategy of many of the lawyers who file the suits isn’t to win the case quickly. It’s to drag it out as long as possible, with motions, depositions, and requests for information (discovery) that take time and cost hard dollars for the attorney handling the case as well as the person being sued.

So the best way to handle a SLAPP lawsuit is to do your best not to become the subject of one. As I told my friend several weeks ago, how you phrase something matters — a lot — in cases like this.

Don’t Ask for a SLAPP Suit

Here’s what my friend wrote about the publisher that caused me to suggest revisions:

“XXXXX did an awful job of producing my book. This is a warning to anyone wanting to publish a book. DO NOT USE XXXXX, XXXXX is a rip-off operation.”

Had she written, “I thought that this publisher did an awful job of handling my book, and I wish I had never worked with them,” it could have reduced the chances of her being sued. Why? Because what she wrote (“do not use…”) gave the business a reason to claim she was attempting to harm their business by telling others not to hire them.

What I suggested (“I wish I had never worked with them”) is an opinion, usually protected free speech under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. I am (generally) entitled to my opinion, and to express it. But when I state something as a fact (“They did a bad job” as opposed to “I was not pleased with their work” or “The contractor used substandard material” instead of “I don’t think that the Chinese drywall used in my construction was of good quality…”), then it’s up to the defendant to prove that fact — which is a lot harder to do than most people think.

I’ve been collecting copies of SLAPP suits and cease and desist letters threatening a SLAPP suit for the last few years. If you’ve received such a letter — or sent one — or been sued, please send me yours. And whatever you do, don’t throw it away or ignore it on the mistaken belief that it’s a joke or you don’t have anything to lose even if they win.

A legal judgement will ruin your credit, and it can take away money you desperately need later. For instance, in many states a settlement from an insurance policy, money you receive from selling your house, tax refunds, a lottery win, or even future earnings or retirement payments may be garnished or attached to pay legal judgments.

I know one person who laughed when they were sued for a million dollars, saying, “I’m a single mom, I owe $50K on my student loans, and I get food stamps. You can’t get blood out of a turnip.” More than a decade later, she became employee #4 at a tech start-up, and the first million dollars she earned when the company was sold was confiscated to pay that old judgement. Chances are, had she bothered to defend herself, she might have won, or at least settled at a lower cost.

Phrases to Avoid

Based on an unscientific review of about 200 such lawsuits and letters filed against individuals by businesses since 2007, I have observed four common elements. The first is profanity and pejorative names.

Fighting words, name-calling, and profanity crop up in a surprisingly high number of SLAPP suits. No one wants to be called names, so if you want to post your views online while minimizing your risk of being sued, avoid getting personal, and avoid the kind of language your mother warned you about.

The other three common denominators in the suits I reviewed in my decidedly unscientific review of lawsuits filed by businesses against individuals for online reviews or social media comments are these kinds of phrases:

  • WARNING: Beware of… (or the variations: Stay away from…Don’t do business with…DO not hire…Do not buy…Do not waste money…)
  • SCAM ALERT: (Company or individual’s name) is a con artist… (or the variations: I got taken in by…These scammers took my money…Don’t trust…)
  • (Company or individual’s name) lied (or the variations: misrepresented…promised but did not deliver…ruined my property description by doing shoddy work…did shoddy work…is the worst company description…)

When I first talked to my friend about what she’d written on her blog, she said plaintively, “But I don’t want any other writer to go through what I went through. I am doing this to save other people! I wish somebody had warned me!”

That’s something I hear often from people who’ve been hit with a SLAPP suit. For the most part, they thought they were doing a public service by warning other people about a business they had a bad experience with.

The posting that lead to my friend’s SLAPP suits has something in common with other similar cases: the post was written in a way that “warned” others about the company filing the suit. That’s a problem. When you tell other people not to do business with a company, you’re crossing the line into lawsuit territory.

So here’s the first rule of writing a negative review, or posting a story of your experience with a company: Focus on your own experience, and don’t tell other people what to do. Keep your language in the first person.  “I hired…”  “I found…”  “I paid…”  “I thought…”  “I feel…”

Several lawyers have told me that their willingness to take on a case for a business owner unhappy about online comments is based in large measure on what is actually said in the review or comment. I shared these very similar comments with them, and was told they are less likely to take a case where the user posted something like the statements in red than they are on the ones where the user sticks to statements of opinion like those in blue.

  • “Don’t eat at Deb’s Restaurant. The food will make you sick.” vs. “I won’t be eating at Deb’s Restaurant again after spending last night hugging the porcelain fixtures in my bathroom. I have never felt so sick!”
  • “Don’t buy flooring from Peek’s Carpet and Tile! They scammed me out of $600 to remove old tile, and then wound up putting new tile down on top of the old tile. Now my foyer is ruined and the new tile is coming up, and they won’t refund” and “In our recent flooring experience, I wish that I had stopped the work as soon as I saw that the installer was putting new tile down over the old tile, even though I had paid to have the old tile pulled up.”
  • “Bottom line: Do NOT put yourself through this nightmare of a contractor.” vs. “I wish I had never hired this contractor. I was very unhappy with the results.”  (This one resulted in a $750,000 defamation award for a contractor who sued a homeowner after her review was published on Yelp and Angie’s List.)
  • “Don’t waste your money with these guys. Hire (another company) instead.” vs. “I wish I had hired (another company) first. I wasn’t happy with (first company’s) work, and paid (another company) to come in and re-do things the way I wanted.”

One thing to take special note of: don’t attempt to disguise an assertion of fact as an opinion in an attempt to avoid a lawsuit.  For example saying, “It is my opinion that John Doe is the hacker who stole credit card numbers and ran up a charge on my credit card” isn’t likely to be viewed as an opinion by anyone reading it, including a judge.

Don’t Try to Prove the “Truth”

It’s a common belief that as long as you tell the truth, you can’t be sued — or, if you are sued, you can’t be held liable.  Unfortunately, proving exactly what the truth is can be costly, time-consuming, and a lot harder than you think.

Let’s say that I am unhappy with a haircut. If the salon sues me, claiming that what I said wasn’t true, and I need to prove the truth of what happened, I would need to be able to:

  • Prove that I was in the salon on the day I said I was. (Receipt of payment, email confirming appointment, check-in on social media site, witness who saw me there, etc.)
  • Prove that the hairstylist I said cut my hair was working that day, and cut my hair. (Same “proof” as the first item.)
  • Prove that no one else touched my hair after I left the salon. (Hard to prove a negative!)
  • Prove that the haircut provided was different than what I asked for or approved at the time. (Who keeps before and after photos of their hair? Writes down the instructions given to a hairstylist? Goes to the salon with a witness who can confirm what was said?)
  • Prove that the haircut was substandard for some reason. (Exactly what was wrong?  Too short? Uneven? Damaged hair? Photos and “expert testimony” may be needed.)
  • Prove that I asked the salon to repair the damage and they refused or were unable to do so. (What could they have done to make me happy? What steps were taken before I took to social media to trash their reputation?)

Even if I can prove the “facts”, the stylist might still win if I used language that caused them to suffer monetary damages (loss of a job, loss of income, decreased bookings, etc.) as a result of my review.

The saving grace for many people who write reviews is that the people whose reputations were damaged may not have the wherewithal to find and hire a lawyer to sue on their behalf. But an increasing number of small businesses are suing over online reviews and social media postings.

There are reputation management firms that offer clients the documents they need to file small claims court suits on their own, and there are states where a “small claim” case can result in up to $15,000 in damages, with an automatic judgement if the defendant fails to show up in court.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) offers an excellent guide to online defamation that outlines what you can — and can’t — say in an online review.

Review/Comment Tactics to Avoid

Most of the “rules” for online comments and postings are subject to being interpreted in the context of where and when they were written. For instance, it matters how many times you post something. A single review might or might not result in a damage award, but posting the same rant on every online review site you can find and sending it to every local consumer reporter or letters to the editor site may cross the line between “expressing unhappiness over a transaction” and “trying to injure the reputation” of a person or company.

Taking revenge for something you are upset about or intending to cause financial harm to the person or business you’re writing about is another kind of “context” courts can consider. Specifically, don’t threaten a business. Here are several “threats” found in emails submitted as evidence in recent lawsuits won by business owners against online reviewers.

  • I’m going to make it my business to tell everyone I meet what a crook you are.
  • I am going to tell everyone not to do business with you.
  • If you don’t fix the problem you caused, I am going to ruin your reputation online.
  • You just turned a satisfied customer into someone who wants to see you put out of business by negative reviews.

Some statements are considered libel per se — that is, unless you can prove them to be true against a very high standard of proof (which, as noted above, is hard to do), you will likely be found guilty of defamation. Avoid statements that:

  1. Charge any person with crime, or with having been indicted, convicted, or punished for crime;
  2. Impute in him the present existence of an infectious, contagious, or loathsome disease;
  3. Tend directly to injure him in respect to his office, profession, trade or business, either by imputing to him general disqualification in those respects that the office or other occupation peculiarly requires, or by imputing something with reference to his office, profession, trade, or business that has a natural tendency to lessen its profits;
  4. Impute to him impotence or a want of chastity.

The first and second are pretty easy to understand. The third one gets many people into trouble with their online reviews. You may think that the installer who came to your home to hook up your new computer couldn’t tell a router from a plunger, but saying so can result in a damage award if he shows up in court with a diploma from a reputable trade school or university, or even his certification from a vendor or company where he works.

As for the last one, if you’re talking about someone’s sexual habits in an online review, you’re probably so far over the line on what’s acceptable that what you say about their chastity may be the least of your worries. Just don’t go there.

Pictures Can Paint 1,000 Libelous Words

One final suggestion. Take extra care with photos, cartoons, and videos. You don’t have to say or write a single word to be guilty of libel, defamation, or tortious interference and their cousins contract interference and product defamation.  A picture can result in a defamation lawsuit, too.

For example, let’s say that I have a bad experience with a hotel, and post a negative review on my personal blog — and then illustrate it with a photo I snagged off of Flickr, making sure that it was available to use under a Creative Commons license. (No copyright infringement for me, thanks!)

If that photo shows an employee of a hotel (the one I stayed at or any other hotel), and puts that individual “in a bad light that tends to injure his reputation or standing” in his profession, then I may have just volunteered for a lawsuit. So if you want to complain that your hotel room was in bad shape, post a photo of the hole in the wall — not a photo of a hotel employee.

Beware of Emails & Requests for Help

Last, but not least, be careful with how you answer follow-up questions after an online review.  I’m starting to hear more and more often about attempts by companies that are unhappy about online comments to trick a careful writer into crossing the line into defamation in comments or emails sent after the original post.

Here’s how it works. The company, using an alias, sends an email or posts a comment that asks the reviewer for help. The reviewer, assuming that they are taking part in a private conversation says something in their reply that wasn’t part of the original review. The result: a lawsuit.

This summer, I received no fewer than 300 comments and emails on two blog posts about the kinds of scams that parents of would-be child actors face. I’m convinced that at least 250 of them came from a company mentioned in one of the posts.  I sent most of them directly to the spam folder, after the first few raised my suspicions.

All of the suspicious questions originated from an IP address that was within a very small range of the IP address hosting the company’s website. More importantly, they all told a sob story and begged me for help by “revealing the real facts” or “giving a plain answer” or even “helping me get back money they stole”.  The goal seemed to be to induce me to claim that a specific company is unethical or engaged in a scam. (Something I did not do in the original post.)

My mother’s constant advice always rings in my ears when tempted to say something blunt and not very nice about a company or a person. “If you can’t state your complaint calmly and politely, wait until you can. Speaking out in anger demeans you, and when you speak in anger you can’t speak wisely. Making your case calmly and politely may not get you what you want, but it won’t get you into a fight you can’t win, either.

“Don’t say it in private if you wouldn’t say it in public.  Just because you think it’s private, doesn’t mean the person you’re talking to won’t blab it all over town.”

Mom was right. I do share my opinions about companies and products, but I choose my words carefully before I post them. I think if everyone took time to cool down before posting a negative review and followed my mother’s advice about profanity and name-calling, then it would dramatically reduce the number of lawsuits filed.  Don’t you?

Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer; nothing in this blog post should be construed as legal advice. Consult a competent attorney licensed in your home state and knowledgeable about online legal issues before making any decisions about suing, or handling a potential lawsuit.
Photo credit: The photograph of the hands on the keyboard is by photographer Dee Lee.

About debmcalister

I'm a Dallas-based marketing consultant and writer, who specializes in helping start-up technology companies grow. I write (books, articles, and blogs) about marketing, technology, and social media. This blog is about all of those -- and the funny ways in which they interesect with everyday life. It's also the place where I publish general articles on topics that interest me -- including commentary about the acting and film communities, since I have both a son and grandson who are performers.
This entry was posted in Law, Social Media and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to Are You Careful (Enough) In How You Phrase an Online Review?

  1. Pingback: How to Be Negative Without Getting The Attention of Lawyers (Hopefully) - Power of Podcasting

  2. Pingback: Can You Trust Online Reviews? Sometimes | Marketing Where Technology Intersects Life

  3. Pingback: The Right to Yelp: What the New Laws Mean for Social Media Users | Marketing Where Technology Intersects Life

  4. Hugo says:

    curious to have your thoughts on this exchange… and if it needs rewritten

  5. Deevly says:

    Thank you for writing this. I’m currently in a dispute with a contractor, and it’s not going very well. It occurred to me that I should take some care in my communications, and this post has been very helpful. Thanks.

  6. melissajane14 says:

    This is exactly the information that I needed. Thank you for posting it!

  7. Pingback: 5 Easy Ways to Get Sued Over Online Content & Social Media | Marketing Where Technology Intersects Life

  8. Pingback: Good News on Casting Hub/CastHub Refunds? | Marketing Where Technology Intersects Life

  9. Sue says:

    Thank you very much for your article.
    I hope many people will read it. I feel like I learned a lot .
    I wonder if SLAPP suits could be filed against a negative review on books read.

    • debmcalister says:

      Hi, Sue –
      Remember, I am not a lawyer, so if you need a definitive answer to the question, please consult knowledgeable licensed attorney in your home state.

      Also, a SLAPP suit is one that has little change of prevailing at trial. They are nuisance suits, intended to get a defendant to back down and remove negative comments, rather than to prove actual damages.

      I’ve seen the impact that negative reviews can have on book sales — but I would not personally try to intimidate someone who didn’t like my writing by filing a SLAPP suit, so this is not something I’ve ever considered.

      Thanks for your comment, and best of luck with your online review questions!

      Regards, Deb

  10. Pingback: How to Increase Traffic for Your Blog: What Worked for Me | Marketing Where Technology Intersects Life

  11. Law Press says:

    Many thanks for spreading this information. Much needed! It’s well written for the layman. Glad I found it on Google!

  12. Dona Parks says:

    Terrific post however, I was wanting to know if you could write a little more on this topic from the standpoint of what a business can do when someone posts an untrue review about their company.

    A single bad review can ruin a small business, and suing isn’t always an option. So what can we do?

    I’d be very thankful if you could elaborate a little bit further. Many thanks!

  13. Lisa Halliday says:

    Thanks for posting this. I’m not generally a flamer, but it’s definitely food for thought. I would much rather not comment or be extremely careful, than get slapped with with a SLAPP suit.

  14. Lynn says:

    This is an awesome post! Great advice as always. I try not to say anything about anyone I wouldn’t say to their face and that certainly goes for companies. This made me think about my recent post about our house. I posted that the original contractors apparently “half assed the work” because for some inexplicable reason the supports pillars go from 6 spaces apart to 10 in one spot (the wall with the problem). I don’t know the original builders because the house is older and even if I did, I wouldn’t have said their name. A few years back I wrote some blog posts about a company I worked for but never mentioned them or anyone else by name. I was also careful about what I said. I try to do that but anger can get the best of any of us. Thanks for the point about the emails from others. Not sure if that would have occurred to me but it might have in your situation. It definitely will now!

    • debmcalister says:

      Thanks, Lynn! You’re right about anger getting the best of all of us from time to time.

      I am so glad that the Internet came along when I was an adult instead of when I was a teenager. I worry about some of the stuff my grandkids post online coming back to haunt them in years to come. Google never forgets!

      Thanks for the kind words, and for taking time to visit and comment!

      Regards, Deb

  15. Jessica S says:

    Great article. I agree with chilling effects L.J. above made a comment about. Our free speech rights are so incredibly importantly, too often abused, and easily cowed out of existence by SLAPP suits. My dad used to always advised me the same way, “Never put down in writing what you wouldn’t want everyone in the world to see.” That truth rings far truer with the growth of blogs and other self-publishing formats on this lovely World Wide Web. The truth is always a defense to libel and slander, but it does you little good if you can’t afford to get it on the judge’s desk or if you can’t (as you mentioned) really prove it.

    • debmcalister says:

      Hi, Jessica,

      Unfortuantely, the truth is not always a defense against defamation (which is not quite the same as slander or libel). There have been several cases in recent years where there was no dispute about the underlying facts, but the defendant lost because of the way in which the online comment or review was written.

      And, as you pointed out, it’s hard to defend yourself if the cost is prohibitive.

      Thanks for taking time to read & comment — I appreciate it!

      Regards, Deb

  16. L. J. Breedlove says:

    Good job. Basic journalism law, but people who blog/write reviews don’t have the resources a media corporation has. They need to be extra careful. At the same time, SLAPP suits are troublesome. There is a chilling affect on free speech that worries me. Maybe EFF or ACLU will take it on some day.

    • debmcalister says:

      Thanks, Lois! I agree that SLAPP suits are troublesome. I sympathize with small business owners who see their life’s work ruined by an online rant that may or may not be true, too.

      Both the EFF and the ACLU have filed a number of responses to SLAPP suits. The EFF site has links to all of the cases they’ve been involved in, and it’s a long list.

      Here’s the link:

      The EFF site also includes the briefs they’ve filed, which gives other groups or individual attorneys a starting point in their responses. The problem with libel or defamation cases is that it’s the defendant (the blogger, writer, or social media user) who has the burden of proof. That makes it even more expensive and difficult.

      Thanks for taking time to read & comment — much appreciated!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.