Reputation management is a critical issue that affects businesses of all sizes. With online social media platforms playing a significant role in shaping the public's perception of businesses, it is of paramount importance that business owners and individuals alike can better understand the consequences of making defamatory remarks in the public domain. With this in mind, Moon Consulting spoke to Ben Holt, Partner at law firm VWV, to discuss the legal implications of such situations.
What is Reputation Management and how does VWV help?
About 10 years ago, I started doing some defamation work for corporate clients, mostly relating to stories run by the controversial end of the national press. Back in 2007 Facebook had only recently opened up to the general public and the whole of Twitter only produced 20,000 Tweets a day. In reality, to get something published, you needed to be a journalist or a IT geek. Now, I suspect even my seven year old daughter could publish something on the internet within a couple of minutes.
The bread and butter work of my team of litigation lawyers is supply contract disputes and shareholder/director claims. The other part is what I slightly grandly call "reputation management": in simple terms it usually relates to "bad stuff on the internet". The popularity of social media and ease of publishing has meant that about half of my practice is now in this area.
How can your business reputation be affected online?
The problems will often relate to someone publishing something that they should not have done. A disgruntled employee or customer taking matters into their own hands. Freedom of speech is something we should all look to protect, the trouble is that people do not think through the legal wrongs they may be committing when making comments.
The offensive content may be defamatory. It may amount to harassment. Particularly en-vogue is the misuse of private information, often linked with infringements of data protection rules. The publicity received by phone hacking cases has led to an unfortunate misconception that all such breaches have massive damage awards attached to them. Breaches of confidence can also cause serious problems, particularly with commercially sensitive information.
The psychology of what people will say on the internet is fascinating, particularly when people have the benefit of anonymity, resulting in "trolling": comments being made purely to be controversial. We generally find that in the cases we work on, the "troll" will stop once they are unmasked.
Do any celebrity Twitter spats come to mind?
Even when people do not hide their true identity, it is often curious what they consider to be acceptable. Take the recent spat between journalist Katie Hopkins and food blogger Jack Monroe. Essentially, Hopkins' mistakenly believed that Monroe had been involved in defacing a war memorial, Tweeted about it and didn't properly apologise. Monroe successfully sued and was awarded £24,000 in damages. Hopkins was also landed with legal bills reported to have been over £300,000. Hopkins was reported to be considering appealing the decision.
To some extent, the transient nature of Tweets can make them the e-equivalent of newspapers being "tomorrow's chip-wrapping" - and a sensible balance needs to be struck when considering taking formal action, given the costs involved. Action may however be needed when there are wider issues at stake, such as safeguarding of vulnerable people or other regulatory issues.
While the Hopkins case may grab the headlines because of the personalities involved, it is not so far removed from the sort of situations that businesses regularly find themselves in: whether on the receiving end of a social media assault from a competitor or aggrieved client; or considering issues relating to comments made by an employee. The Hopkins case clearly shows that the risks of liability for comments made on Twitter cannot be taken lightly and the clear mantra has to be "think before you Tweet".
© Moon Consulting 2017