SLAPP-happy: How not to respond to social media Twankers

When someone attacks your business online, you may be tempted to call your lawyer.  My field is customer service, not law–I don’t even play a lawyer on Hulu – so I’m not technically qualified to stop you.  But from what I’ve seen, legally threatening the Twanker who made you feel so bad is going to fail as a strategy for addressing customer complaints, for two reasons.

First,  it’s likely illegal.  A “SLAPP” lawsuit is a “strategic lawsuit against public participation.”  Strategic in that you don’t expect to go to court; you intend to silence your critic and discourage other critics.  But this strategy is illegal in various jurisdictions, including 26 states. Now, I know this is frustrating when your business has been unfairly slammed, and I agree that whether these laws are working as intended is an open question. Anti-SLAPP legislation is intended to protect the free speech of “little guys,” but it does nothing to defend the actual little guys in business against what can be the devastating consequences of treatment in the hands of truly big players like Yelp and Google Places.

A SLAPP in the Face(book)

Still, I suggest you hold your fire.  Consider reason number two for not getting SLAPP-happy. Even if threatening your customer doesn’t land you in legal hot water or with daunting bills for court costs, the entire approach is likely to end up SLAPPing you in the face.  The reason?  Your reaction tends to bring excessive publicity to the issue. There’s even a term for this:  The Streisand Effect, after Barbra Streisand sued a photographer in a failed attempt to remove a photo of her mansion from the California Coastal Records Project, which resulted in greater distribution of the photo than would have happened before.

And at the very least, it does nothing to reduce the damage. You don’t have to be Streisand and your SLAPP-ee doesn’t have to be a tenacious photographer for such a lawsuit or threatened laswuit to end up backfiring. Look at the hilariously written, and entirely backhanded, “retraction” by a restaurant guest under legal threat that follows here, and think if getting such a response really serves your business.  (I’ve renamed the restaurant in question. Yelp, however, has given the restaurant no such compassion.) [i]

On March 3, I posted a restaurant review on this website and seven days later I was threatened with a lawsuit by an attorney representing Serenity Seafood Café for two unverified statements that I made…In order to peacefully resolve this matter I am following the course of action the attorney has requested in the letter:
1.) I will retract my posting – Below is my written retraction
2.) I will remove the posting – the posting being replaced by the retraction
3.) I will not make libelous statements about [name of restaurant was listed here.]

Retraction of my July 6th posting pertaining to [name of restaurant]:
I had no malicious intentions when writing this review.  In fact I feel the statements in question are immaterial to the substance of the review.  Nonetheless, in retrospect I really should have said ” To me, the “line-caught rainbow trout” tasted like farmed fish because it was almost flavorless and it looked like farmed fish because it was the wrong color and crumbly.  Perhaps it was indeed wild fish that just spent too long in the freezer…” and I should also have said pertaining to the chicken that…”this chicken seemed to me like frozen tenders because it was the size, shape and texture of large pieces of solid plastic.”


It’s hard for me to add much to that review, in words of warning or counsel. The message is clear: SLAPP-er beware.


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© 2011

[i] Emphases are mine. I have altered details of posting, including name of restaurant and some of the food details to avoid adding fuel to this sordid situation.