By Karen Robinson-Jacobs The Dallas Morning News
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) A Dallas area Wedding photographer recently won a hefty lawsuit after being trashed online. This article takes a look what entrepreneurs can do to protect their reputations before getting into a legal dispute with an unhappy customer/client.
The Dallas Morning News
Before her name went up in flames in a blaze of internet infamy, Dallas wedding photographer Andrea Polito had not invested money in maintaining the integrity of her online identity.
"I honestly didn't feel I needed to," said Polito, who last week won $1.08 million at the culmination of a two-year legal campaign to clear her name. She had an established business and "didn't have upset clients for the most part."
For Polito, whose business was "destroyed" by a disgruntled couple via online postings and a broadcast report, vindication came in the form of a Dallas County jury verdict last week.
The jury decided newlyweds Neely and Andrew Moldovan had embarked on an extensive effort to slam Polito and her business, Andrea Polito Photography.
Polito's operation, launched in May 2003, came to abrupt halt in 2015 after the couple made defamatory, disparaging and malicious statements following a dispute about wedding photographs, according to court documents. The Moldovans, who could not be reached for comment, can appeal the ruling.
Andrea Polito Photography, which is not currently operating, is typical of what some online experts described as "sitting ducks." These are small to medium-sized firms with a thriving business but no one specifically tasked with keeping the company's online persona pristine.
'The degree of business that can be lost from devastating things being posted online can be really severe for some types of businesses," said Chris Silver Smith of Dallas-based Argent Media, an agency that focuses in part on online reputation management.
"Small to medium-sized business is at a fairly high risk."
Unlike major corporations that employ sophisticated social media teams, firms such as Polito's can be torpedoed by negative comments. Polito said the negative comments "spread like wildfire," after a KXAS-TV (NBC5) report said Polito was holding the wedding photos "hostage," according to the suit, which was filed in March 2015.
Polito said she thought she had developed a strong online presence, with positive mentions in numerous wedding related Web sites. But that was quickly swamped when the TV report went viral.
"I didn't know what to do," Polito said of the initial onslaught. "I was in shock. I'm scared people are going to show up at my house."
Experts said one of the most important things a business owner can do following negative posts is to respond.
"Not responding is not an option," said Shama Hyder, chief executive of Dallas-based Marketing Zen, which launched in 2009 as one of the few firms helping companies traverse the choppy social media waters.
Polito said she checked into hiring an online reputation management firm, but found them too pricey. Costs can go beyond $1,000 a month, said Smith.
So Polito hired an attorney, though experts say lawsuits stemming from online disparagement are still rare. Her lawyer, Dave Wishnew, said he's gotten 20 emails or calls from business owners since news of the verdict broke. Smith and Hyder suggested businesses be proactive before a crisis arises.
Both said business owners should maintain an active social media presence with regularly updated postings on sites such as Facebook and Twitter.
And they should encourage, as a matter of course, customers to regularly post reviews. Too many reviews posted in a short time, i.e. just after a crisis, looks suspect.
But a wealth of positive reviews posted over time helps blunt the impact of a few new negative ones. The positive information is more likely to be displayed closer to the front page in search engines, experts said.
Smith also encouraged companies to include links on their web sites to events they sponsor on behalf of charities. He said the proactive approach can act as "insurance policy ... so that we're not quite so vulnerable to the first dissatisfied or crazy person that comes along."
Even with the jury's decision, Polito said she still doesn't think she'll have enough to rebuild her business and hire someone to mend her social media profile.
She's hoping the legal win, and the positive publicity that's followed, will help.