All publicity is not good publicity: how to handle negative online reviews

According to a 2014 survey by Deloitte, an estimated 81% of UK consumers read customer reviews/ratings1 and 40% write their own reviews.  With common practice being to carry out internet searches in respect of a business before you engage its services or buy its products; having a favorable online presence is more important than ever. 

The saga trending on Twitter at the beginning of March as #chavgate is an example of how not to handle negative online reviews.  After receiving a disgruntled review on the restaurant's Facebook page from a bride-to-be dining with friends on her hen do, a Manchester restaurant responded with a tirade of abuse, referring to the party as 'chav cheap trash', 'peasants' and 'the bottom of the barrel of Society'.  Understandably, this response attracted heavy criticism and the restaurant now appears to have deactivated its social media accounts.

Poorly handled reviews can land businesses in hot water but so can attempts to evade or mask negative reviews, either by attempting to counteract the damages with false positive reviews (a practice which has led to several search engine optimisation companies (SEOs) being fined in the USA) or by imposing terms and conditions which strictly prohibit the posting of negative reviews. Trying to control customer opinion often will compound negative publicity, as seen in the case of the Tripadvisor couple "fined" £100 for describing a Blackpool hotel as a "filthy, stinking hovel".

Whilst prevention is always better than cure, it is almost inevitable that at some point a customer will feel dissatisfied.  Negative reviews can be damaging to business so it is important that they are handled effectively.

  1. Knowledge is key:  The internet moves rapidly and a passive approach to your online business presence is not enough.  By the time you find out about a negative review it may be too late to make a meaningful difference.  Internet alerts such as Google Alerts and Social Mention can be set up to notify you as soon as your business is mentioned online, giving you the best chance to mitigate the damage.
  2. Respond promptly:  Assess what action needs to be taken and try not to ignore negative feedback.  Even if the response is simply to thank the customer for their feedback and acknowledge the complaint ("thank you for your feedback, we are sorry to hear…") it shows potential customers that you care about what your existing customers think.
  3. Do not respond emotionally:  As highlighted by the Manchester restaurant fiasco, it is important to respond professionally remembering that your response will be viewed by other existing and potential customers.  Take a moment to look at the feedback from the position of a third party observer before responding.
  4. Do not argue:  Rather than try and justify your position publically, it is often best simply to thank the customer and acknowledge the complaint (see point 2).  Whilst some businesses think that they need to publically defend their position, this can come across as petty and argumentative.  If the matter needs further resolution, invite the customer to contact you.  They may not take up the offer but viewers will see that you are actively trying to resolve the issue.
  5. Ask for removal if the review is false or malicious:  If the review goes further than a difference of opinion and is actually misleading then you may ask the website administrator to remove it under the website policy.  If the post is defamatory, a legal remedy may be available (see our update "Malicious or fictitious: hope for victims of false online reviews?") but we would advise a balanced approach, taking into account the potential backlash as a result of an over-aggressive stance. That being said, if reviews are extreme, you may wish to consider civil actions for defamation or malicious falsehood. If there are personal attacks on staff; you may wish to consider contacting the police as an offence of harassment may have been committed.
  6. Train staff to use social media responsibly:  It is important that any employee purporting to represent the views of the business online is trained to interact responsibly with the public.  Remember that employers may be identified on employees' social media pages. Whilst you cannot police the behaviour of employees outside of work, you can make sure they are receiving the necessary guidance to represent your business appropriately. 

Michelmores can help your business develop a social media policy for use by the business and its employees. If you are the subject of extreme negative reviews, we can help you explore the options for legal challenges.

Finally, don’t take offence to negative reviews.  Where possible, view criticism as constructive and address your business practices accordingly.  Someone has taken time out of their day to provide honest feedback at no additional expense to you and highlighted issues you may not otherwise have been aware of.  Negative reviews are an opportunity to improve.

For further information on any of the issues raised here, please contact Jayne Clemens, Associate in the Technology, Media & Communications team at

1 Deloitte, The Deloitte consumer review – The growing power of consumers, 2014