No doubt this has happened to most salon owners; a stream of nasty, vile, untrue comments posted on social media by disgruntled clients, even competitors – so shockingly damaging they leave you quaking at the knees, paralysed and hurt by the sheer vindictiveness.
Social media has turned hordes of people into keyboard warriors, able and willing to hide behind their smart-phone screens and inflict immense damage to the business reputations of good people. Yes, you.
And good people are fighting back. Early last year, a former student was ordered to pay more than $100,000 in damages over a series of defamatory posts about a teacher at the school. That’s an expensive tweet.
So take heart. The LAW is on your side. It’s time you started using it. Any business with 10 employees or fewer – in other words, 99% of all salons & spas – can take legal action to protect themselves. But it may not need to get as far as expensive legal action, if you know your rights.
Let’s take the biggest social media of all, Facebook. Few salon owners would by now have escaped completely unscathed from attacks published on Facebook. Yet few salon owners are aware of how quickly these attacks can be shut down. And more to the point, few people at all understand that by posting material online – pictures, words, videos – that cause material damage to the reputation and revenue of a business can leave them open to damages of up to $355,000 under Australia’s uniform defamation laws.
(And the same applies to anyone complicit in publishing or otherwise sharing such posts. Administrators of forums, take note. The law treats you the same as if you were a newspaper publisher.)
So what is, and what is not, defamatory? That comes down to the issue of ‘fair comment’. It is not defamatory for somebody to say “I didn’t feel at all welcome at ABC Salon, I felt intimidated.”
That’s fair comment, a representation of how that person felt. But it IS defamatory to say
“Mary Smith is a lying, cheating fraud, and her staff at ABC salon are rude, incompetent and dirty. The place is a pig-sty. Don’t go there, or you risk getting a disease!”
In Australia, there is only one rock-solid defence against defamation action; truth. You have to be able to prove that what you said about a business or individual is true. But here’s where the law is on the side of the business (for once) – it is not up to the business (or business owner) to prove the business, or the owner, has been actually damaged, it is up to the accused defamer to prove that it or she has not been damaged.
Even better; as the business owner, you and your business don’t even have to be specifically identified as the person defamed. If you can show the court that a reasonable person would take the words to refer to you, you’ll still have a good case.
(And for the record, for something to be ‘published’, it only needs to be said to ONE person other than the person or business being talked about.)
According to high-profile law firm Slater & Gordon, here are five things you should know about social media defamation:
- In general terms, defamation occurs when a person intentionally spreads information about another person, group of people, or small company that damages their reputation, or can make others think less of them.
- Defamation is actionable regardless of the medium. A person can be defamed, for example, in print, through photos and on the internet.
- Defamation cases involving the internet and social media are relatively new, but the same principles apply.
- A person who did not create the defamatory material, but only shares it (for instance, by “retweeting” a tweet), can also be found guilty of defamation.
- There are several defences to defamation, including that the statement was true, or that it was an expression of an honest opinion. Consequently, you may be liable for defamation if you spread information which constitutes a hurtful and untrue statement of fact about another person.
So here’s what to do if you feel you and/or your business reputation has been damaged by untrue statements published online:
- Immediately take screen shots of the offending material. As many as you need to capture the entire thread or post.
- If possible, post your own rebuttal, calmly and concisely, without making a personal attack on your accuser.
- Privately, contact the offender with the screen shots attached and suggest that you might not take the issue further if the post or posts are immediately removed, and a full, complete and satisfactory apology posted in their place.
This doesn’t get the keyboard warriors out of the woods however. Social media being what it is, any really nasty comments about you or your business are likely to have been shared and seen by thousands of people. Keep your powder dry. If you can demonstrate that the original post has gone viral and you’ve suffered serious reputational damage, then you should get some legal advice.
Don’t be afraid to flex some muscle.
Footnote: so when CAN somebody make really nasty, untrue and damaging accusations and get away with it? Only two places; in parliament, and in a court-room. Both places, and the people who speak in them, are protected by what’s called ‘absolute privilege’.
NOTE: Defamation laws vary from country to country.
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