Social Media Precedents, The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

Posted: January 9, 2009 in Social Media, Society & Culture, The Marketing Industry, Web2.0
Tags: , , , ,

yelpFile this under ugly…

Recently a lawsuit was brought against a consumer who felt he got ripped off by his chiropractor and posted a negative review on Yelp. While the outcome of this suit can set precedents for the future tonality of blog posts and negative reviews, there is a bigger issue here for us marketers to learn from. Businesses need to finally learn that social media reflects reality, and cease and desist letters and lawsuits are not the tools to use to solve your problems. What used to be little problems pre-social media turn into major bouts of damage control today. One truth of course that has not changed,  is that businesses can afford more legal services than the average consumer, and these types of cases can often be looked at as bullying for settlement (incidentally this case was quickly settled, but the details are not disclosed). This case has a few gray areas, but generally a consumer is being sued because he expressed his opinions about a vendor who he felt was not honest. He has a right to fell that way and a right to voice his opinion about it. I think the issue in the case is exactly how he voiced his opinion about it, but that is not the point here.

Evolution Of The Need For Damage Control
While the case is pending, the original post was removed, but can be  accessed via the StandForSpeech.com website created by Christopher Norberg as a result of the suit. Although the original post is gone, there are now hundreds if not thousands of conversations and blog posts about the situation (as this post). Even some mainstream media picked up the story. The slough of review and comments on Yelp show both sides of the story, but seriously, I can’t imagine even the good reviews convincing anyone searching for Dr. Beigel’s background  to ever do business with him.   Especially when they are intersperesed with comments like:

“I have never seen Dr. Biegel, but you can bet I would never see anyone who would sue someone where it concerns free speech.  Shame on you.”

“God awful practice! From his treatment to his obscenely high and unjustified pricing, you are going to come out of here hurting physically AND financially.
His service was rushed and his treatment did nothing but generate more pain. To top things off, his billing practices add insult to (literal) injury.
AVOID THIS CHIROPRACTOR.”

“Why are you suing someone for posting their opinion to a site?  Yelp makes it very clear that people posting to their site are posting their personal opinions and experiences. The cruel irony you’re going to find is that refuting this one negative post, you’re now getting an unimaginable amount of bad press.  Way more than the one post ever solicited.  ”

“Shame Shame Shame.  Suing over a review.  If Dr. Beigel knew anything about yelpers, it would be that we have brains in our heads.  One negative review out of many 5 star reviews would have struck me as an oddity and I would have likely gone anyway.  Not now!  I have a feeling that many others are feeling the same way and will steer clear.”

Not all the comments are bad, in fact there are plenty of positive comments about Dr. Biegel:

“I just felt I had to defend Dr. Biegel after having seen his suit in the news. I wanted to say that I had NO problem with his billing practices. Unfortunately, the treatment itself was useless, and actually aggravated my pain, so I don’t feel that I can give him more than 2 stars. But I do want to say that the costs/insurance were very upfront, and I’m sure he did the best that he could.”

“I’ve known Doctor Biegel for many years and I’ve rarely met a more honest and forthright person. I trust him completely. The assertion that Dr. Biegel is suing this guy because of a bad review is simply wrong. This guy is being sued because he made false claims accusing Dr. Biegel of committing insurance fraud. That’s called ‘libel’ not a ‘bad review’.  Look it up.”

Of course of the reviews that came as a result of this entire fiasco it is impossible to decipher truth from passionate frustration. But when browsing earlier comments and reviews, it seems like the Dr. Biegel had far more positive reviews sprinkled with a negative one or two here and there.  As of this post, there were 56 reviews.  Most of the negative reviews were a result of the lawsuit, not as a result of the doctor’s service or practices. Proof that the suit is going to hurt the good doctor more than the negative review did in the first place. There’s a message to marketers in this madness.

yy2

The positive reviews like…

“Thanks Dr. Biegel for fixing my back problem!  I owe my pain-free days and restful nights to you!  I heard you charge more than other places, but the service is all around great so I don’t mind letting my insurance pick up the extra cost.  I love walking into your office knowing that I can relax and enjoy my adjustment.”

…are now being upstaged by the controversy and the negative reviews that are associated with what was not the best course of action to deal with the situation.

So, Why Am I Posting This?
Yes I care about the free speech issue, but that is not the point of this post. Legal prowess and deep pockets or not, a marketer has many avenues of putting out social media fires prior to the level of escalation we see in this case. Consumers will make those feelings heard. If you provide a quality product and good service, the community will often come to your aid and defend you against the intermittent backlash from the odd customer who slips through the cracks and has a poor experience. It happens to the best company, you can’t please everybody all the time. You can also participate in the community, listen and learn from customers, earn their respect, and engage them appropriately – both the positive and negative. Respond, don’t react. In this instance, I have no idea how transparent the doctor was about pricing ahead of time, nor the effort the doctor made to reach out to Norberg to try and amicably resolve the issue (the statement below may shed a little light here), but like all relationships, business or personal, a lack of communication is often the culprit.

The Verdict here was a settlement, the details of which were not disclosed. All we can do is interpret from Norberg’s post-settlement post on Yelp:

“A misunderstanding between both parties led us to act out of hand. I chose to ignore Dr. Biegel’s initial request to discuss my posting. In hindsight, I should have remained open to his concerns. Both Dr. Biegel and I strongly believe in a person’s right to express their opinions in a public forum. We both encourage the Internet community to act responsibly.”

Who Won?
Unfortunately, nobody but the lawyers.  Biegel’s claim that the post was libelous and caused him to suffer “loss of reputation, shame, mortification, and hurt feelings,” as well as “injury to his business and profession,”, sort of pales in comparison to the amount of damage that the suit itself and all the negative press has caused. A philosopher would throw the case out on those grounds alone. The legal expense and stress on Norberg must be fairly extensive. Was the settlement a blow to bloggers and reviewers? I don’t think so. I think there were some gray areas in the language Norberg used, and ultimately neither party wanted to drag this case out any further. But let it be known that lawsuit  won’t stop consumers from sharing our thoughts, feelings and opinions about the products, services and practices of the companies with whom we do business.

So what do you think? Was Norberg being libelous or just expressing his opnion? What do you think about the settlement?

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Comments
  1. Excellent content here and a nice writing style too – keep up the great work!

  2. Alan Wolk says:

    Dunno Jason.

    It’s a tough call.

    A chiropractor is a solo practitioner in a business whose clientele can shift pretty quickly. And a charge of insurance fraud is a pretty big one.

    It’s tough to get someone in that position to accept that the mass of posts being in his favor will make the charge of insurance fraud seem baseless.

    Bigger question: What will happen when unscrupulous competitors start posting false reviews on sites like Yelp. I mean I can easily see a chiropractor posting negative reviews on the Yelp page of his new competitor. (Not to disparage chiropractors, mind you, it’s just that we’ve been discussing them. Could just as easily be a dry cleaner or realtor.)

    And you know that’s going to happen and that others are going to find ways to game review sites (leave a favorable comment on HellerReviews.com and get a $5 coupon!)

    So that’s definitely next. Figuring out how to stop that.

  3. Jason Heller says:

    Good point Alan, and that’s actually happening already. i’ve seen it in the travel industry.

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