Restaurant Reviews in the New Age of Social Media

Once upon a time consumers would turn to reviews written by professional critics when making decisions about things such as patronizing restaurants or attending a movie or show.  Reviewers were professionals who usually had some expertise in the subject being critiqued and a professional reputation that was at stake if they did a bad or malicious job.  With the rise of social media the professional critic is being usurped by our peers.   Social media sites such as: Facebook; Yelp; Urban Spoon; Open Table and Twitter provide consumers with up-to-date reviews from multiple critics of almost any establishment.  There are now a plethora of reviews for virtually any establishment one can imagine.  For some establishments social media has allowed their reputation to go “viral” which has been an obvious boon to those businesses.  No business has been more affected by the social media revolution and instant reviews than the restaurant industry.  For consumers the ability to choose a restaurant based on information garnered on ones’ smart phone, which also provides a map and a link to the menu, is a convenience that is enticing and not likely to go away any time soon.  Social media provides consumers with a powerful tool when making decisions about restaurants.  Self-described “foodies” with no formal training have been given a forum to critique any eating establishment at any time, and often these “reviews” are anonymous.  Negative reviews can be devastating especially to a new establishment just getting started.  How should restaurateurs address the possibility of negative reviews on a social media site?  Start by educating the staff to engage positively with their guests.  The benefits here may seem obvious, however regular and consistent reminders help to promote a culture that will make guests feel more welcome which should in turn lead to positive reviews.  Encourage customers to post reviews.  This may keep restaurant staff members on guard if they know that their actions may be critiqued — particularly if those critiques have an effect on their hours and tips.

What can restaurateurs do when they receive a poor review by an anonymous reviewer?  Most social media sites allow businesses to respond publicly and/or privately to user reviews. Responding to reviews is a great way for restaurateurs to learn from and build a rapport with customers. Be mindful about responding to reviews or contacting reviewers directly; after all, the reviewer is or was a paying customer.  Reviewers can be unpredictable and can have adverse reactions to comments which can make the situation worse.  If a customer is willing to post a negative review there is little to stop him or her from posting more negative comments if he or she is not satisfied with the response.  Responding to a negative review can be very difficult. Either write a thoughtfully tactful response addressing each concern or just keep it simple by thanking the reviewer for his or her patronage and feedback.   Negative reviews can feel like a punch in the gut particularly for founders and sole proprietors. It is important that a restaurateur not take a review personally.  Often times contacting a reviewer with a thoughtful and polite response establishes a genuine human relationship.  There is an opportunity to change this customer’s perspective for the better. If, however, the reviewer perceives the response to be rude, condescending or disingenuous, there is a chance he or she could get angry and make the situation worse.

Most experts recommend that business owners post a public comment in response to a negative review.  Public comments are a way for business owners to add comments to explain or clarify a reviewer’s concern. Prompt response to reviewers’ concerns shows that a restaurateur values feedback and is willing to improve.  A public response should be simple and polite, and should never disparage the reviewer.   Never use public comments to launch personal attacks, advertise, or offer an incentive to change a review.

It is recommended that responding to positive reviews be done using a private messaging function of the social media site.

What should a business owner do if a review is completely false? Americans have the right to complain and often do so anonymously.  Yet, such complaints must be factually true or clearly based on an opinion.  Indeed social media does not excuse a reviewer from making false statements that may damage the business.  Publicly made false statements that cause damage can be grounds for a defamation law suit.  Before a suit is commenced, it is generally recommended that the business owner attempt to resolve the issue of factually inaccurate reviews through private messaging with the reviewer or through public comment if warranted.  Trying to resolve the issue should be presented in a simple and polite manner so as not to attack the reviewer. Unfortunately, mutually agreed upon resolutions do not always occur and a restaurateur is forced to file suit.  Should the restaurateur obtain a favorable result in court he or she may be able to force the reviewer to remove any false post, and it can expose the reviewer to monetary liability.  Bringing suit against someone who has identified themselves in their review is one thing, but what happens if the review is anonymous?  The veil of anonymity does not provide a defense for defamatory statements.  Courts have begun demanding that social media sights reveal identities of anonymous reviewers who make defamatory statements.

If your restaurant has been subjected to false statements posted on a blog or some social media site, contact our office to determine what steps can be taken to restore your restaurant’s reputation.

– J. Ken Butera

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