Why Lawsuits to Remove Negative Content Often Backfire

by Brett Borders

lawyer.jpgLawsuits used to be a relatively powerful, discreet and efficient way to handle professional grievances.

But the internet changed things.

In the highly-transparent, online world… reputation lawsuits can very easily backfire. Threatening or filing a defamation lawsuit is more likely to harm your online reputation than to improve it.

Threats Make People Want to Retaliate

A real life example: Once, I moved to a new city and began to look for a job as a copywriter. I needed relevant material for my online portfolio, so I included a script that I wrote while working at a previous agency. My former employer saw it, and they had their attorney send me a nasty legal threat letter outlining specific fees and court costs. Apparently, I had signed some kind of NDA one my first day at the company saying that they owned everything I created while working there. I honestly didn’t remember that particular clause in the 5 page “employee agreement” that my new boss asked me to sign on the spot.

But… the fact that they threatened me right off the bat, rather than just talking to me about their issue first, made me quite angry.

I quickly called up my old boss at home and said:

Hey! If there’s a problem with the content on my website, call me and talk to me about it first. I’m pretty reasonable. There’s no need to threaten me or play lawyer games. If it’s such a big deal for you, then fine, I’ll take it down. But if you ever send me any more threatening letters, I will post my opinion about your company and your legal threats online – for everyone to see!

I felt quite emotional. I didn’t like being suddenly threatened without warning. My instinctive “animal” reflex wanted to bite back.

And many people respond in a similar way. Or much worse. It’s hardwired, mammalian territorial behavior.

Why Threatening a Lawsuit is Generally A Bad Idea

  • The First Amendment generally protects people’s right to post their opinions, impressions and facts.
  • Website owners cannot be held liable for comments posted by anonymous users.
  • Webmasters have the legal right to link to whatever pages they want to.
  • Lawsuits bring out the most stubborn and unforgiving side of people – particularly in sadistic online defamers- causing them to seek more online revenge.
  • Legal proceedings often create official memorandum pages on high-ranking court & government sites.
  • Your case can be picked up by major blogs and news aggregators, creating content about the case and powerful links that are virtually indelible.

However, there are some situations where threatening and/or filing a lawsuit can work out:

  • If someone is deliberately trying to defame you with information that is verifiably untrue, you might have a case.
  • If someone is threatening harm or violence, you might have a case.
  • If someone is infringing on your logo or copying your original content, you might have a case.

But if someone is merely reporting news or stating an unflattering opinion / perception about you or your brand, you probably don’t. Talk to a lawyer and make sure that you do have a case, and be prepared to act on it before you threaten it. Most importantly, be prepared to accept all the potential negative coverage and backlinks if you do decide to get litigious.

lawsuits often create indelible links on high ranking websites

Even if you are successful in court, online news and blog coverage of your case is very possible. These articles and citations about what happened can remain visible for years or decades, marring all your online reputation management efforts. And making empty lawsuit threats can make your defamer want to dig their heels in and publish (much) worse content about you online.

Kindness Usually Works Better Than Threats

I’ve found that the most effective way to deal with negative content is to appeal to people’s conscience and humanitarian “good side,” first. Tactfully explain the impact their content is having on your life / business. Ask if they would consider making changes to it, or remove it, if applicable. Ask how you might be able to help them in exchange for their cooperation with helping you.

I have successfully gotten people to remove negative links by asking kindly, or in exchange for giving them a positive links. I’ve had inaccurate headlines and title tags changed by suggesting better ones. I’ve gotten negative reviews “fixed up” by editing them and sending over the proofed and improved version in HTML they could conveniently copy and paste in. I’ve gotten full cooperation by a establishing connection with greetings in the Webmaster’s native language, or asking them interesting questions about their country.

The trick is to be pleasantly persistent. Almost every webmaster is busy, has a full inbox, and wants to know: “What’s in it for me?” They rarely respond well to lengthy / complex / threatening e-mails. Short, sincere, highly-personal personal messages have the best chance of being read, comprehended and acted upon. Make the connection. Simply explain the situation. Kindly ask for the cooperation. And pleasantly follow up for a couple of weeks, if necessary. If you’re nice, they may be inclined to help you just to get you “off their case.”

If kindness and concise communication – and patience – fails to remove the negative content, then you can think of trying a more forceful or confrontational next step.

But, most of the time, you will probably never have to!

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  • http://www.viperchill.com/blog/ Glen Allsopp

    You make some great points here Brett, good work. I am fully behind using lawsuits only when absolutely necessary but try to stay clear 99% of the time as there’s probably a better work around.

    Good to see you blogging again!

  • roz rambach

    Excellent post!!!

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    Very good post! Like the points you make, but I think there are two things: 1. In the US this happens far more & faster than in Europe for example. Lawyers see money in everything, they are almost next to your bed in the hospital when waking up after a crash for example. 2. Due to 1, it is far more easier to have it done by a 3rd party, than to do it yourself. In all, I completely agree with only sewing when really needed, and in your example this was not the case.

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