Most of the time, I come down hard on the side of Adam Smith and The Wealth of Nations.

So why am I aligned more on the side of the ACLU and Ralph Nader’s Public Citizen when it comes to First Amendment Rights of Free Speech, and Yelp reviews?

yelp1

The answer lies in a complicated set of circumstances and trends with many sinners and very few saints.

Let’s try to make some sense of these intertwined factors:

● Our society has evolved from agrarian/agriculture to industrial/manufacturing to technology/service provision.

● Web 2.0 through the means of digital ones and zeroes has not only put word-of-mouth advertising on steroids; it has given consumers an unprecedented level of control over the reputations and brands of service providers (e.g., doctors, lawyers, contractors, Realtors, resorts, restaurants, butchers, bakers and candle-stick makers).

● Yelp (NYSE: YELP), TripAdvisor (NASDAQ: TRIP), Angie’s List (NASDAQ: ANGI) are the market leaders in affording consumers and travelers digital opportunities to publicly review service providers. They also have business models based upon delivering lots of eyeballs to advertisers, thus attempting to satisfy shareholders.

● The personal reputations and brands of service providers are in play as never before, assisted by positive reviews and potentially damaged by negative criticism. The best defense for service providers is a good offense as exemplified by the Zappos creed of under-promising and over-performing, delivering a “Wow!” experience to consumers.

● Yelp has been accused of being willing to employ its “automated review filter” to remove negative reviews in exchange for advertising dollars. An L.A. dentist with some negative reviews allegedly was informed that these critiques could magically go away by means of a few Yelp advertising dollars. The doctor during on-camera interview equated this practice to “blackmail.”

● Virginia resident Jane Perez hired building contractor Christopher Dietz to perform some work. She was not pleased. She wrote negative reviews about Dietz on Angie’s List and Yelp, giving him the dreaded one star out of five potential stars review.

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● Dietz in turn claimed that Perez’ less-than-pleasant review cost him an estimated $300,000 in business, and in turn filed a $750,000 defamation lawsuit against Perez. The case is going to trial. The ACLU and Public Citizen are representing Perez on a pro bono basis. Did Chris Dietz really sue his customer? Would you hire Mr. Dietz to fix your deck, knowing you too could end up in court as well?

Dude, what are you thinking?

So what do we have here?

  1. Publicly traded online consumer review outlets in search of big-time and small- time advertising dollars.
  2. Literally thousands of service providers, each of which is critically dependent on their good names and reputations to be successful and stay in business.
  3. Consumers, who can ethically or unethically inflict literally hundreds and thousands of dollars’ worth of damage against the reputation and brand of a service provider, and possibly put themselves rightfully or wrongfully in the cross-hairs of a defamation law suit.
  4. The rights of consumers to use their constitutionally guaranteed rights of free speech to express their opinions and by doing so providing a service for fellow consumers.

And what are the public relations/marketing/communications implications for this simmering stew of providers, reviewers, lawyers and Yelpers?

Service providers need to understand and accept that the rules of engagement have forever changed and are continuing to change. Doing a good job and delivering a great service and/or product is the best defense on the planet.

Service providers need to constantly monitor what is being said about them via social media sites and blogs. And if a review is less than positive, the provider needs to respond pronto. In some cases, there is value in accepting the criticism and moving to make things right. If not, the service provider needs to respond and offer a professional rebuttal. If the service provider does not have the time to monitor digital media, then she or he should hire someone to do so.

Consumers should be mindful that service providers have legal rights. They can defend themselves against willful defamation. They can also launch countersuits, and win.

When Yelp, TripAdvisor, Angie’s List all decided to go public, accept investor dollars and report quarterly and annually, they triggered questions as to which priorities are more important: advertisers, shareholders or reviewing consumers. Maybe these firms would be better off going private.

These firms, particularly Yelp, need to be cautious about responding to a wounded service provider with an offer to essentially trade advertising for a little sleight of hand when it comes to algorithms (Poof! … the negative review has gone away). Wonder if that is what happened to my Yelp review about a particular Pleasanton, CA Realtor, Tim McGuire of Alain Pinel Real Estate?mcguire

Our First Amendment Rights of Free Speech are precious. They need to be protected, safeguarded and cherished. Having said that, there are limits besides not yelling “Fire!” in a theatre. An example of these limits is deliberate and willful, and most of all untruthful, defamation of a service provider’s character, reputation and brand.

Service providers would be well advised from a PR standpoint to think long and hard about filing one of these defamation suits. The $750,000 suit by Christopher Dietz against Jane Perez has drawn the attention of the national media, including the Washington Post and Beltway network affiliates, (guess who they are privately rooting for?). And if and when Mr. Dietz publicly loses his case, they will be sure to make the verdict very public.

Dietz will be known as that contractor guy, who sued his customer because she wrote a bad Yelp review. Want to hire Mr. Dietz for your next construction job? Make sure your lawyer is on your speed dial.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/crime/750k-lawsuit-over-yelp-review-will-go-to-trial/2014/01/26/63e9d372-8539-11e3-8099-9181471f7aaf_story.html#!

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/crime-scene/post/aclu-public-citizen-to-fight-lawsuit-over-negative-yelp-review/2012/12/20/9242b430-4ab8-11e2-b709-667035ff9029_blog.html

http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/crime/2012/12/04/1cdfa582-3978-11e2-a263-f0ebffed2f15_story.html

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/30/yelp-lawsuit-_n_4179663.html

http://www.ibtimes.com/yelp-extortion-rampant-say-small-business-owners-class-action-lawsuit-against-review-bully-appealed

http://www.nbclosangeles.com/news/local/Yelp-Under-Fire-for-Alleged-Pandering-to-Advertisers-232472381.html

http://finance.yahoo.com/news/christopher-deitz-sues-jane-perez-over-negative-yelp-review-222800638.html

http://finance.yahoo.com/q/pr?s=YELP+Profile

http://sueyelp.webstarts.com/

https://almostdailybrett.wordpress.com/2011/07/11/loss-of-control-how-to-safeguard-reputations-and-brands-in-a-digital-world/

http://www.yelp.com/biz/tim-mcguire%E2%80%94alain-pinel-real-estate-pleasanton.

https://almostdailybrett.wordpress.com/2010/09/17/hard-lesson-in-seo-search-engine-optimization/

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