Employment Law: Digital Workplace – Take Control of Responses to Negative Online Comments

By Elijah Yip

“Why did you fire my wife?” Bradley Reid Byrd posted this question on the Facebook page of Cracker Barrel. Byrd wanted to know why his wife was let go after working for the restaurant chain for 11 years. The post remained largely unnoticed for about a month until a comedian uploaded a screenshot of it to his Facebook page and his 2.1 million followers. The internet outrage machine then kicked into high gear. Multiple hashtags were created (#JusticeForBradsWife, #BradsWifeMatters, #NotMyCountryStore). Someone started a “Brad’s Wife” Facebook page. A petition demanding answers from Cracker Barrel was launched.

Social media makes it easy to channel the furor of the masses against an organization. The instigator could be anyone with some connection to the organization – a former or current employee, their relatives, or a customer. What should an organization do if it finds itself at the center of an internet controversy?

Responding to negative online comments is a delicate exercise, and missteps early on can damage an organization’s reputation tremendously. From a human resources perspective, the first step is to control who, if anyone, should respond. Employees should be prohibited from making “rogue” responses on behalf of the organization. Employers should state this restriction clearly in their social media policy and train employees on the importance of compliance.

After deciding who will handle the response, the next step is figuring out what to say. The knee-jerk reaction to inflammatory or untrue online comments might be to threaten a defamation suit against the posters, but that can backfire and damage the organization’s reputation even more. Sometimes the best response is to say nothing and let the controversy pass.

If a response is warranted, consider who the audience will be and how they might respond to it. Pointing out flaws in the negative comments could be perceived as overly defensive. On the other hand, respectfully acknowledging the negative comments or posting positive content about to organization could defuse the controversy.

Whatever the response, it should be the product of careful consideration. On the internet, it takes just a few clicks to set off a firestorm.

Elijah Yip is a partner in Cades Schutte’s Litigation Department. He is currently the editor of Hawaii Employment Law Letter, where this article first appeared. In that role, he is also a member of Employers Counsel Network.