If you’re a business owner with a thin skin in California, you’re about to have a bad time.
The state has had problems with businesses requiring customers to agree not to say anything negative about them online. But this week, California Governor Jerry Brown has signed into law a state bill that cracks down on the controversial practice.
“No consumer should ever face penalties for voicing their opinions on the services or products they have purchased, and California law is now clear that no company has the ability to silence consumers,” Assemblyman John A. Pérez (D-Los Angeles), a sponsor of the bill, said in a statement.
The bill comes at a time when businesses often struggle with how to respond to negative reviews and comments on such sites as Yelp and Tripadvisor. Punishment for businesses that do not comply with the new law is a fine up to $10,000.
There have been a number high-profile cases involving businesses trying to exact money from those who post harsh reviews online. In such cases, companies have attempted to collect from customers, who—often unknowingly—agree to the non-disparaging clause in the fine print of a sales agreement. One such instance involved a San Antonio couple who never received their product and posted their displeasure over bad customer service.
More recently, an upstate New York hotel, Union Street Guest House, threatened to take $500 from the deposit of recently betrothed couples if anyone in their wedding parties posted a negative review.
After a rather one-sided social-media attack on its policy, the hotel said the threat of a fine was only a joke.
Joke or not, the hotel’s Yelp rating has plummeted to just 1.5 stars, and has become a public-relations case study on how not to handle customers as part of a social media strategy.
— Neal Schaffer (@NealSchaffer) September 3, 2014
— Karen Freberg, Ph.D. (@kfreberg) September 10, 2014
Bazaarvoice, an Austin-based social marketing company, works closely with brands and marketers to avoid these sort of public disasters. The company makes a point of advising its clients to avoid disputes that can have long-standing impact on their relationship with the public.
“Manipulating or attempting to silence authentic feedback impedes other consumers who use that content to make more informed purchase decisions,” Matt Krebsbach, Director of Global Public and Analyst Relations, tells the Daily Dot. “Just as important: Businesses that don’t acknowledge both positive and negative reviews create an environment consumers can’t wholly trust—and curtail the very opinions that could help them deliver the products and services their customers want.”