Reflecting on a recent online spat between rail firm Thameslink and high street retailer Poundland, Grid Law founder David Walker explains how business owners can protect their own brand and reputation on social media.
We all know that it takes years to build a reputation and only seconds to lose it. This is as true in business as it is in our personal lives.
Whilst we can control what we say and do to avoid damaging our own brand’s reputation, we have almost no control over what other people say or do.
On social media, people can make cheeky comments about your brand quickly and easily. They probably put very little thought behind them thinking they’re just being funny and not causing any harm. Other times, people can make vicious comments or call for a complete boycott of your brand.
Whatever their intention, all negative comments have the potential to be very damaging to your brand and reputation. If you don’t properly manage your response to these comments, they can damage both sales and profits.
So, what should you do if someone insults, disrespects or makes offensive comments about your business or brand on their social media?
(For the purposes of this article I’m going to assume that it’s another business that has referenced your brand, rather than a customer or other individual.)
Poundland recently found itself in this situation.
In response to a passenger’s Tweet about train cancellations, rail firm Thameslink compared its poor service to Poundland’s chocolate. Thameslink knew its service had fallen far short of what was expected and by making the comparison, the clear implication was that Poundland’s chocolate was inferior to other makes of chocolate.
It’s easy to see how these situations can arise. Whoever it was at Thameslink who sent the Tweet most likely did so in complete innocence. They were clearly under pressure having over 450 trains running late or being cancelled that day. You can imagine that their hope was by using a little bit of humour they could ease the tension and Thameslink would be seen as more “human”, rather than a faceless corporation.
The trouble is, when you make reference to another business’s brand in this way, it can lead to trouble.
Poundland was quite rightly aggrieved by the comment. Its response was excellent and led to a swift resolution of this matter. Thameslink apologised, removed the offending Tweet and I don’t think anyone thinks any less of Poundland as a result of this incident. (They probably think a lot more of them because they handled the situation so well.)
— Poundland (@Poundland) May 30, 2018
If you find yourself in a similar situation you need to act quickly to limit the potential damage to your brand.
Once a Tweet such as Thameslink’s has been sent, the genie is out of the bottle and it will be almost impossible to get it back in. It will be shared repeatedly and many people will screenshot it so they can share it again, even after the original has been deleted.
Formalities before Tweeting
Before responding online, I would telephone or write directly to the business telling them that you object to what they have said and ask them to remove the offending post immediately. (If you do telephone, back up the call with a written demand to remove the post.)
Also, take a screen shot for yourself in case you need it as evidence later.
Be very careful if you react to the post publicly and I wouldn’t recommend making any comments (humorous or otherwise) about their brand in your reply. I know Poundland did and it managed to pull it off in its response, but a situation like this could easily escalate into a tit-for-tat public argument. If it does, it’s likely to end up more damaging to your brand than the original post.
If the post isn’t removed voluntarily, contact the platform. Any business making false or damaging comments about someone else’s brand is likely to be in breach of the platform’s terms and conditions.
You will have to explain that you are the owner of the brand in question and explain why the comment is damaging to your brand and reputation. Usually, they will remove it and then leave the two businesses to argue about who is right or wrong.
In the vast majority of cases this will be an end to the matter, but occasionally you will have to consider the possibility of legal action. This may be to force the removal of the offending post if neither the business nor the platform have removed it.
Alternatively, it may be to claim compensation if you can show it has caused lost sales or serious damage to your reputation.
Trademarks provide excellent protection for brands and using another business’s registered trademark in a detrimental way is a specific offence under the Trade Marks Act 1994. So, if you have protected your brand by registering it as a trademark, the first and most obvious action to take is for trademark infringement.
If your brand isn’t registered as a trademark, you can still take legal action. You can sue for passing off but this is a much trickier claim than trademark infringement.
To be successful you have to prove that you have strong reputation in your brand, that someone else took unfair advantage of your reputation whilst trying to sell their products and as a result you suffered damage (usually that you have lost sales).
If the post was made by a competitor and they were comparing their products, services, brand or prices with yours, this could be comparative advertising (which I talked about in a previous article). If it is, you can complain to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and ask them to investigate further.
An interesting point to keep in mind is that if, in the Thameslink example, the disgruntled passenger had Tweeted something along the lines of “This service is more Poundland chocolate than Ferrero Rocher” this wouldn’t be comparative advertising and the ASA wouldn’t get involved.
However, if Thameslink retweeted that Tweet or even liked it, this could be seen as an endorsement of the passenger’s view and then the ASA may take action.
This is why businesses need to be so careful with their social media. A quick tap of the screen without a second thought suddenly turns into an embarrassing PR exercise at best or an expensive legal battle at worst.
If a comment is factually wrong and people think less of your brand because of it, it could be defamatory. This gives you another option for legal action.
As you can see, if someone insults, disrespects or makes offensive comments about your business or brand in their social media, there are plenty of options for you to consider.
If you have any questions about protecting your brand on social media, please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll happily answer them for you.
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