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A Guide to Tackling Online Harassment

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online harassment

[5-minute read]

“It’s not personal, it’s strictly business.” For anyone who owns a business, this quote from The Godfather could not feel further from the truth. As a founder, CEO, shopkeeper – whatever you might be – your business is your lifeblood. It is the thing that funds your lifestyle, keeps a roof over your head, and feeds your children. So when bullies recklessly post harmful comments about your business online, it gets really personal really quickly.

For better and for worse, platforms like Facebook and Twitter offer their users a (sometimes troublingly) vast amount of freedom from which to express themselves. And if their accounts are anonymous, as so many are, the potential for unchecked abuse skyrockets. For malicious people who are intent on damaging the reputation of others, including businesses, giving them a soapbox and a loudspeaker is not good for anybody.

What’s the difference between a bad review and defamation?

Nobody enjoys being criticised. But most of the time, there’s something to be gained from a negative interaction. The first thing you need to do is distinguish bad (but possibly accurate) reviews from smear campaigns. As a business owner, a bad review should be seen as an opportunity to improve. Constructive criticism born from a true desire to see something change for the better should be acknowledged as a helpful thing.

What if that isn’t the case? Every now and then, a customer can attempt to cause real harm to your business through defamation. According to this Forbes article, defamation is the act of attacking a person or entity with intentionally false or inflammatory accusations to elicit damage to their reputation. It occurs in two ways: slander and libel. Slander is verbal, and more difficult to prove because of the temporary nature of a spoken delivery. Libel, on the other hand, is written and published defamation. This makes it slightly easier to prove because of the physical evidence.

What can you do when someone makes libellous claims about your business?

Firstly, you need to ascertain a few things. One, who is making these accusations? Are you and your team aware of who they are, and is their history with your company recorded or even real? Are they spreading lies, and are those lies receiving attention? Secondly, what needs to be done to contain the potential damage? How widespread is this person’s posting? Have they taken advantage of multiple public platforms to air their misinformation, and was anything publicised via mainstream media?

Ensure that the timeline of this person’s engagement with your company is clearly recorded and understood by all relevant parties before taking any steps. Be sure that there is no fault or confusion on your part before engaging publicly with someone who is determined to cause damage through misinformation. That could lead to trouble for you in the end.

Once the facts are established, it’s time to act quickly and decisively. Reach out to the person, calmly and politely try to ascertain what the root issue is, and see if there is a way to resolve it without delay. If this is not possible, further action will need to be taken. If necessary, the owner of the company may need to directly get in touch with the person and see what can be done to solve the problem.

You should also gather proof of the abuse with dated screenshots and report the false posts if the person refuses to take them down. In these cases, by alerting the authorities of the behaviour, posts can be removed and accounts suspended. However, it can take a long time for these steps to be taken. Additionally, moderators may not view the behaviour as truly harmful or negligent according to the platform’s guidelines. If so, no action will be taken, leaving you in a bad situation with little to no assistance.

So what if none of that works?

For people with a vendetta, the above tactics may not do much, and could actually spur them on to further antics because of the attention received. If so, it’s probably time to consult a lawyer to figure out the next steps. A firm and official letter from a lawyer tends to dampen blustery bullying – it’s all fun and games (for trolls) until they’re facing legal action. Court cases are expensive, drawn out, and tedious.

There’s also room to consider publicising the truth – or bring out the receipts, as the young people say. If you are not at fault and have proof that your accuser is, then prove it. Give them every opportunity to retract their statements, delete their posts, and remove their comments. Be civil, courteous, and firm in all your communications (now is not the time to have your own case of harassment opened against you) when doing so. If none of that works, then compile a document with the information that proves your innocence, and publish it yourself. Current and future customers will see your transparency as a plus; you have nothing to hide and are true to your word.

Above all, be confident that good reviews and positive experiences of working with your company will eclipse any negative dealings. And where you have the power to help your customers, do it to the best of your ability. Facing a bully with your head held high may earn you a few bruises, but eventually, the truth will out. Even if the person doesn’t drop the issue, you know that you have maintained your dignity and integrity by dealing with all customers fairly and honestly. Through consistent and diligent focus on your customers, your service to them, and communication with them, you will prove why you’re a business to be trusted. And in the end, that will be what earns loyal support.

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