I recently had a client go through a very difficult situation on social media. She had a former employee who was disgruntled and wanted to stir the pot to bring attention to the company and the owner. Originally, the employee put her complaint with the owner’s photo (which she got off the owner’s PERSONAL Facebook page) in a group of over 4,000 members in our area. My client wanted to know what her options were and I started to do research. Here’s how we handled the situation. I hope this can help you or your clients should you find yourself in a similar predicament…
This is libel but…
Technically, this is libel because these are words that are written with the intention to cause defamation to a person’s character, however if you aren’t prepared to sue someone on the matter then take the legal definition out of your head. I suppose this would be a different situation if my client was arrested or faced legal action because of this, but she didn’t so this was a very expensive option for us. Also, there are rules about what you must prove when claiming libel, the biggest one being intent which is difficult to prove in court. Even if we KNOW something is true, proving it with factual evidence is a little tricky and is a long term fight.
Be careful about how you respond….
Since this person was a former employee of my client, there are certain rules that limit what my client can say. For example, the reason she’s no longer employed and what happened during her employment all are confidential matters in most states. You don’t want to end up facing legal repercussions in an effort to defend your name so be sure you aren’t breaking any confidentiality agreements or violating the employee/former employee rights!
What is it worth to you?
In this situation, I found that it was not wise for my client to respond for a number of reasons. The first being, it’s going to always be my client’s words against the opposition. Social media is such a public forum where people can screenshot and make your responses go viral! At this point, this was 1 shouting cat in a closed group (yes there were 4,000 members BUT it was still a closed group) and my client couldn’t respond directly within the group because the group administrators wouldn’t allow access. Without access to the group, my client would have to respond either on her own personal page or through her business page which in turn brings MORE attention to the issue because now if people haven’t seen it they want to know what’s going on or you open yourself up to a more public conversation with the opposition and other potential members who may want to join in (i.e. other former employees). This one is a hard bullet to bite because when someone personally attacks your character with allegations that you know aren’t true or skewed it’s very easy to let pride and ego get in the way of clear business decisions. Take the advice of your legal counsel/PR professional because in the end, what is it really worth to you?
Report, report, report!
Most social media forums have the opportunity to report inappropriate behavior. I reported the original post on Facebook’s reporting center but they didn’t remove the post because the opposition technically had a right to say what was said due to the first amendment (sucks right!?) However, there are limitations to this. In my opinion, this was a form of online bullying/harassment but Facebook didn’t see it that way. When in doubt report it! If the social media site feels as though there is something to be concerned about, it will be removed. The reporting is anonymous so the person will never know who reported them.
It can get worse…
Even with all this advice, there’s a possibility it could get worse! I was concerned that my client would have other people joining the bandwagon to make false allegations so we had to be prepared for that. The truth was, there were some comments within the group (about 50) most from former employees who too were disgruntled for one reason or another but no one else REALLY cared! It didn’t affect them personally either way and some even commented that they were still willing to do business with my client because they had never experienced these things before. All of this worked in our benefit, we’ll talk more about this in the next topic.
Unfortunately, it did get worse though…
This person decided it wasn’t enough to just make their complaints known in the group, they wanted to let the world know! It was already posted on this person’s personal page (again a public space but not as public as you would think since only about 25 percent of a person’s friends on Facebook see their posts at any given time) and it wasn’t being shared. I guess this person decided it was time to do more! There was a “fake” page created (a page with an artificial name) and my client’s friends (including myself) were personally sent friend requests with this page, however this was the biggest mistake they made! Facebook has a really strict policy about using names that aren’t real for pages and so I was able to make a report based on that stance and they took it down! The person created a second page with the exact same fake name and I reported it again. Whenever you make a report based on name usage, Facebook requests an identity verification and of course that’s impossible if you aren’t really that person. Only a few of my client’s friends had added these pages and the ones that did alerted the client immediately. In situations like this, it’s important to have someone monitor social media to ensure things don’t get too out of hand.
My client was smart in that she makes her employees sign confidentiality agreements and I recommend everyone, even a small business, have one because people fear legal action. Sure this didn’t stop this person, but how many more did it stop in the past or will it stop in the future? It’s never good to let your employees have your trade secrets without a confidentiality agreement, period.
Another option is to drown out the negative with positive. When it was all over my client made a post about how happy she was to work with amazing people and to be in her career field. The people who knew what was going on thought she was taking the high road and those who didn’t know only thought it was a post about her life being great! You can enlist others to help you with this process. If there is something that’s being said on your page that’s negative, have your customers, friends, family and whoever else join in to say positive things. This will leave your attacker out as the lone wolf. Don’t stoop to their level by arguing with them on social media or attacking them personally, but have others spread the positivity.
In the end, my client was happy. This may not be over just yet, but the client knows how we will handle negativity going forward. Every situation is different. If there is a real threat or harm, get law enforcement involved. Having a crisis communications plan BEFORE something happens prevents your key players from scrambling in the wake of a major event! To learn more about how to create one, visit my post "How Create a Crisis Communications Plan" or reach out to me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.