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In the second of two excerpts from his new book, Manage Your Online Reputation, lawyer and Your Business columnist Tony Wilson discusses how to handle negative publicity online.

After having given you reasons why you should monitor your reputation online and some tools to help you monitor it, what can (and should) you do about negative publicity online?

As a lawyer, I can tell you that you shouldn't launch a defamation or other legal action except as a last resort. It can seriously backfire.

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By way of example, Horizon Realty Group of Chicago sued its former tenant, Amanda Bonnen, for $50,000 (U.S.) over a single tweet. [Ms.]Bonnen's tweet read: "Who said sleeping in a moldy apartment was bad for you? Horizon realty thinks it's okay."

The tweet was found because Horizon was monitoring all uses of the word Horizon on the Web (which included [Ms.]Bonnen's Twitter account as she mentioned the brand Horizon). She wasn't a heavy Twitter user, posting between one and five tweets per day to her 20 followers.

Although a representative of Horizon, Jeffrey Michael, stated, "We're a sue first, ask questions later kind of organization," suing a tenant over a tweet as opposed to dealing with a customer complaint arising from a tweet can (and did) backfire badly. Horizon's lawsuit received considerable negative publicity in the Chicago area, causing [Mr.]Michael to apologize on the Web about his approach to suing a former tenant.

If you want to win over a disgruntled customer, and perhaps attract new ones, you have to think smarter, and not always go running to your lawyer.

By way of example, the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia (ICBC), which runs most of the automobile insurance in the province, uses services such as Google Alerts to monitor the acronym ICBC. Said one person on Twitter who made a claim with ICBC: "Picking up my car later today from Kirmac … finally! Oh and, screw you ICBC!"

Shortly after this tweet was posted, an employee of ICBC tweeted back to him, and said, "Hi [name withheld]it seems you're unhappy with us. Anything I can do to help?"

A bit shocked that ICBC saw his tweet, he replied, "ICBC for real? On Twitter … LOL, it's all good nothing can really be done now."

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There's a couple of lessons to be learned. First, your tweets can be discovered by anyone looking for certain phrases or buzzwords, including brands and trademarks.

The second point is that this was a marvellous example of good customer service. It's a good reason to use services such as Google Alerts to monitor what people are saying about your brand, if not for any reason other than to see if you can help an aggrieved customer.

You can't always deal one-on-one with a disgruntled customer when you have thousands (or millions) of them. Perhaps the most obvious solution is to direct negative commentary directly to a page that you yourself control as part of your company's website. A discussion group page will allow consumers to ask questions (which you might be able to answer just by referring them to an FAQ page).

Or technical people within the organization could answer the questions within the discussion group format. This gives representatives of your company feedback on whether a product is doing what it's supposed to be doing, so that bugs can be detected and fixes undertaken to the product. Use commentary and criticism to be better at what you do.

Most manufacturers and distributors will have internal discussion group pages. There may also be non-company-sponsored forums in your industry where consumers comment, criticize or complain about your product or service, or the products of others.

If you are going to post responses, I think transparency is extremely important and, if you're responding on an independent forum, you aren't pretending to be someone else. Say at the outset who you represent, treat the "poster" (no matter how irate he or she is) with respect and courtesy, and genuinely try to help. Otherwise, don't do it at all.

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Excerpt adapted from Manage Your Online Reputation, by Tony Wilson, published by Self-Counsel Press, copyright 2011

Tony Wilson will join us for a live online discussion Friday at noon ET. Click here to participate.

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About the Author
Business Law Columnist

Vancouver franchise lawyer Tony Wilson practices franchising, licensing and intellectual property law. He is ranked as a leading Canadian franchise lawyer by LEXPERT and Who'sWho Legal, and he is an adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University.Mr. Wilson is head of the Franchise Law Group at Boughton Law Corp. More

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