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Social media and company reputation

 Article by Sixolile Timothy for SchoemanLaw Inc

 In this day and age, we live in an era where social media can make or break a business. Consumers now have a voice to share their opinions and experience about a company or brand. While social media can be good for growing your business and attracting new customers, it can also expose your business to negative publicity and criticism. This can have a negative impact on your business’ reputation and brand equity.

It’s important for business to manage negative responses on social media to minimize the risk on its reputation. The golden rule is to act promptly and respond to the comment or post. First, you must ensure that you have clarified the facts and that you can respond knowing all the facts around an incident. Negative statements that are not factual are consistently and repeatedly published and threaten the company’s reputation. Your response must ensure the consumer feels heard and provide for a resolution of the incident. Where the negative untruthful statements continue, companies may also consider the available legal remedies to remove such statements from social media platforms. These include, an action for defamation or an application for an interdict.

Defamation refers to any statement that is made or published with the effect of damaging the good reputation of another person. An action for defamation can be tricky as the courts try to preserve the right to freedom of expression. The company must prove the intentional, wrongful publication of a defamatory statement concerning another person.

An interdict is a court order that may be sought to enforce a right and is sought by way of application proceedings. You can obtain a prohibitory interdict – which prevents someone from doing something and a mandatory interdict – which requires someone to do somethings. A company can obtain a prohibitory interdict to prevent someone from posting any harmful post or obtain a mandatory interdict to order someone to remove a harmful post. A company would, however, have to prove that the relief sought meets the requirements of an interdict.

The RM V RB1 case shows that not all defamatory statements are actionable in court and that granting a blanket interdict will place a severe limitation of freedom of expression. Furthermore, a final interdict is unlikely to be granted by a court in circumstances where alternative options for relief are available. It is therefore important that companies distinguish between damaging statements and general customer complaints.

It is more difficult for a company to institute a claim for defamatory posts as most comments and posts would be considered opinion or bad reviews and as such any court order would be an unjust infringement of the right to freedom of expression. An individual might have greater prospects of success instituting a claim for defamatory posts.

With most of the world making use of social media, it is inevitable that your company will experience some negativity on social media. Companies should take active steps to protect their reputations. Such steps include understanding the rules of engagement on such platforms; setting up internal escalation policies and processes for dealing with and evaluating comments, which appear to attack their brands; educating themselves on the potential risks to reputational value and investing in their online reputation management. Legal remedies exist, but in the case of social media, are usually instruments of last resort and given the power of social media to “flame”, these should be very carefully evaluated before being pursued.

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1 2015 (1) SA 270 (KZP)