Twitter smack-down: Pizza joint hit with $2 million lawsuit

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Welcome to the world’s first hyper-interactive, cross-country, super-charged blog.

My subject today will serve as a case study to be discussed during a Twitter chat (#SM4B) hosted by Steve Farnsworth (@TheRealPRMan) Wednesday, Oct. 7, at noon Eastern time.  I will be his guest. Then on Thursday, Steve will contribute his own perspective in a guest post on {grow}.  I hope you enjoy this post and take advantage of the learning opportunity from every angle.

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Here we go again with another lawsuit based on a Facebook and Twitter comment.  And this time it happened right under my nose.

The Pizza Kitchen is a popular landmark in my neighborhood. They have funky Elvis stuff on the walls (It is Tennessee, you know!).  I’m not a frequent visitor but I did get a free meal once when their lasagna came out too soupy.

But that’s beside the point.  They just got slapped with a $2 mm libel lawsuit over comments made on Facebook and Twitter.  Apparently they retained marketing firm Low and Tritt to help them with advertising and promotions in a tough economy.  Business reportedly continued to go down and the restaurant’s owner, Travis Redmon, let the firm go.   A disagreement about fees and licensing rights ensued.

An article in the local paper reported what happened next:

According to the suit, Redmon defamed the marketing firm in two Aug. 17 Facebook entries that said, “Do not EVER use Lowandtritt mktg. firm!” and “CROOKS! – Stolen email list, and have tried to pressure me by threat of lawsuit to sign a ‘license agreement’ to use their mktg materials.”

The following day on Twitter Redmon posted, “Lowentritt mktg firm has done it again…” and “Can you believe that they have not only stolen my email list, but have now hacked Pizza Kitchen’s facebook page taking it offline?”

The posts were published to more than 300 Facebook friends of The Pizza Kitchen and 247 followers on Twitter, according to the suit.

I tried to find the latest legal opinions on libel and Twitter and, as they say in Australia, it’s a dog’s breakfast … a mess.  You could successfully argue both sides and it may take one of these things going to trial to determine a precedent.

However, the legal aspects of the pizza lawsuit seem secondary to the fundamental business issues at hand.

First, is it ever really a good idea to sue your customer?  Pizza Kitchen has one store and 247 followers on Twitter.  Even if the owner was really, really difficult, you just … don’t … sue … customers over something liks this.   Do you??

Low and Tritt’s website boldly claims that their company “foundation” is:  Client First, Always.  Hmmm.

OK, let’s put aside the messy “client first” thing for a minute.  What would they be trying to prove with a lawsuit like this?  Have they not been reading the papers?  This sort of legal action is so 2008.  This is a recipe for PR disaster.

There was a similar infamous case that went viral in July, as reported by the Chicago Tribune:

A Chicago corporate landlord set the Internet world abuzz by suing a former resident for a seemingly offhand remark on Twitter about her “moldy” apartment.

The libel suit by Horizon Group Management alleged that Amanda Bonnen “maliciously and wrongfully published the false and defamatory tweet, thereby allowing the tweet to be spread throughout the world.”

But Bonnen had only about 20 Twitter followers at the time of her allegedly libelous tweet. By the time the news of the legal fight spread Tuesday around the Web, however, “Horizon Realty” hit as high as No. 3 on Twitter’s list of trending topics and made the front page of Digg.com in which users rate the top news of the day.

One prominent lawyer said that the landlord was “inviting a PR nightmare” and “foolhardy” but the landlord is still pursuing the case.

Which brings me to point two.  These days, “word of mouth” does not take place at the water cooler.  This is an era where everybody has a voice, everybody has a global public platform.  A dissatisfied customer is a terrorist.  And Low and Tritt … seems to be in trouble.

How did the reporter find out about the lawsuit?  Probably from somebody who sympathizes with the restaurant.  So, now it’s in the newspaper.  And on TV.  Both online versions have comment sections providing more fuel to the public perception that Goliath is bullying David. As of this writing, there were 81 comments with stabs such as:

“They should change their name to low and trite.”

“Low & Tritt has conducted a fantastic gonzo marketing campaign advertising what the firm stands for. I wonder if they can sue themselves for stupidity? I’m sure the current clients splashed all over their web site are proud to be associated with such a professional organization.”

“I guess if you can’t make money by providing a quality service to your customers… then you can just hire a snake lawyer, and sue the customers that you FAILED for million$$$$.”

It gets worse. I didn’t hear about this from a newspaper.  I saw a link to the article on Twitter and so did hundreds, perhaps thousands, of others.  Now the news about Low and Tritt is going viral.

Although crowd reaction might go with the pizza baker, the lawyer for Low and Tritt claims in an interview that anybody with an audience had better be careful:

“The claim is that the posting on the Twitter page that was not accurate about the marketing company,” says Pamela Reeves. Reeves is partner of Reeves, Herbert & Murrian P.A., the office representing Low and Tritt in the case.

“It opens up lots of opportunities for defamation,” she says. Defamation – where a false comment damages the reputation of an individual or business – depends on the comment being untrue.

“If the statements that are made are accurate statements, you’re not defamed. It’s simply making an observation that’s true,” says Reeves. “Obviously our clients feel that that’s not the situation here.”

“Remember you always have the possibility of causing someone serious harm when you make those statements on the web,” says Reeves. “Unless you know you’re fully protecting yourself, you should be careful what you say.”

The Pizza Kitchen is caught in a maelstrom of legal uncertainty but has the benefit of public sentiment. Low and Tritt probably didn’t make the wisest business or PR move but might have the law on their side. Does that matter if their reputation is ruined?

So I hope you can all join Steve Farnsworth and I for the Twitter chat on Wednesday and then tune in for Steve’s blog on Thursday. In the mean time, what are your thoughts on this case?

Illustration: Chicago Decider

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  • Well, I think this is just the beginning of more and more litigation created by the freedom of “Online”. It’s so easy to make an off handed comment which before was to a close group and now broadcasted everywhere, and permanently recorded, discussed, analyzed and tracked. The laws of the land are the laws we must abide by. If you slander someone, you’re potentially liable for damages.

    And, as we all know, there are multiple sides to every story. It will be interesting to see how the agency defends itself against these allegations. How could they control what the Pizza Kitchen was going to say online, for everyone to see forever? Should they just sit back and take it? Should they let their reputation just get destroyed by some “online cowboy” who may or may not have a valid claim? What’s their side? Is Pizza Kitchen using IP developed by the agency without paying? Did the agency make some guarantee to ensure business growth?

    What I think is most important here is to know the difference between a bad (verses positive) review about a product or service and slander (or is there one?). I hope we’ll see some legal commentary on this as well.

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  • Mark, I’m really looking forward to our Twitter chat. Here are a few more details about the topic: A Mock Crisis Communications Strategy Planning Session.

    The Scenario: “The Pasta Depot” called “Big Pink Branding” liars and thieves on its blog and Twitter account.

    Big Pink Branding, concerned with damage to its stellar reputation, filed suit. However, the lawsuit has been picked up by social media, and local and national press.

    They now realize that as an unintended consequence of the lawsuit they risk potential irreversible damage to the firm’s long-term reputation, a reputation that they have spent years nurturing, and potential future loss of business.

    They have come to you (“you” being everyone who joins us for #SM4B) and asked: What should we do to minimize the damage to our reputation? How do we grow past this?

    –Steve

  • Jen

    If our social networks are an extension of our physical networks, then the only difference here is that “word of mouth” is in print, rather than an audible statement which is heard but not recorded. Companies need to consider what really is at stake here – dissatisfied customers lead to lost business whether they say it or tweet it. Filing a lawsuit against a customer merely amplifies the bad word of mouth by legions.

    We have a lot of stupid laws. This may be a case where being right doesn’t necessarily make you a winner. I see many other potential paths to resolution for companies in this position. And regardless of the situation, I prefer to think of lawsuits as last resort, not first. I wish more people joined me in that modus operandi.

  • The interesting point to pay attention to in this case is something close to the heartbeat of social media – Transparency.

    The trends in business with social media now having a solid anchor is trust and online reputation. Most of us have heard of “Whuffie” in reference to Twitter reputation and credibility, but at the end of a day your business and mine will be judged by our transparency on the net.

    The old style water cooler chat among a few friends has turned in to a online water cooler conversation. You and I use Twitter daily to share our mood, our thoughts, revelations, complaints and exceptional customer service stories. This is the new water cooler.

    The law will catch up but some may be caught in “old-school” rules that govern libel. For now, just be more careful about what you say which is tough in a new transparent world!

  • Putting aside the pros/cons of additional exposure Low & Tritt has achieved against the damage they’re causing to their own brand and looking at the suit itself / the precedents it’ll help to set … intention and parallels have to be a part of the conversation. Were the comments made most similar to:

    1. A vent amongst a small network of friends
    2. A public notice posted on Pizza Kitchen’s website warning off anyone and everyone

    While I’d like to argue that more leniencies are due to “personal conversations” that happen to become public, the reality of the fact that Facebook Pages and Twitter Accounts are (for the most part) public. Is it realistic to assume one can hold a personal conversation online or would that allowance just mean every person sued would claim that their comments weren’t intended for public consumption?

  • Since Mark obviously edited this post to keep himself in check and politically correct (how many versions buddy?) I’m going to get on the soapbox for both of us.

    Some folks may see this as a question on the legal issues surrounding speaking freely on social media networks (wow – doesn’t a constitutional amendment come to mind here).

    I’m not commenting about that. I’m going to RANT on this supposed MARKETING FIRM that has seen fit to sue a customer.

    Are we all hearing this folks?

    Sue an SMB owner for defamation? You HAVE to be kidding me. That’s anything but a solid marketing strategy. No, let me rephrase that, it’s a strategy alright – for self annihilation.

    This is one of the most ridiculous vendor acts I’ve ever witnessed – and I’ve seen some doozies in my years as a consultant. If they were an engineering firm I MIGHT cut them some slack. But a MARKETING FIRM?

    I want to make some simple points here.

    1) Take care of your customers and you won’t have to worry about being bad-mouthed on social networks. DUH. Anybody ever hear of customer service and working WITH the customer to avoid this kind of backlash born of OBVIOUS frustration with a vendor?

    2) If you can’t solve the problem – then at least figure out how to manage the client’s feelings so they feel heard and supported. You will never convince me this is about some belligerent SMB owner who is bullying some poor firm. Something pushed him over the edge – and we all have a clue what it was. He was stonewalled, insulted, ignored – whatever. He got frustrated so he lashed out.

    3)No matter what – don’t pick on the underdog. It doesn’t matter who is right or who is wrong – you lose and the little guy wins. Big time. Any marketing person knows that.

    Which brings me to me final point.

    I know what I believe about this situation. And ya know – regardless of what the truth is – the firm loses.

    Somebody in this firm’s management needs to buy a clue on customer service and managing expectations/satisfaction. Unfortunately they probably won’t be able to afford a clue after they pay the legal fees….especially with all that lost potential new business running in the opposite direction.

    Frankly I think they deserve the damage their brand is taking. If they are serious marketing people, they should just know better than to act as they did. There are ALWAYS other options to openly attacking anyone. Period.

    Thanks for stirring the post as always Mark!

    keep smilin’
    reb

  • Going back and not putting aside the pros/cons of additional exposure Low & Tritt has achieved against the damage they’re causing to their own brand

    … I agree with reb …

  • I totally agree with Reb, but this is just an example of the early stages of some interesting wars that are going to be battled over liable online. Both sides need to consider their opinions and actions carefully.

    Reb, every company has had challenging clients but does this give anyone the right to lash out like this in a fashion that cannot be defended? Let’s say the agency cut this guy off because he didn’t pay his bills or was totally unreasonable with his requests, does that give them the right to try and damage the client’s rep in the market so other agencies or vendors would question doing business with him?

    There is no question that the agency, being the professional here, should have approached this differently but there is a deeper underlying point here. I wonder how The Pizza Kitchen would react if one of their patrons attacked them this harshly?

  • Mark

    @Jack – I’m not sure there’s a difference between “old school” libel and new media lible. If it’s published and it;s wrong, it can be libel.

    The difference is a) everybody pubulishes (not just newspapers) and b) most people don’t know the law.

  • Mark

    @brian — Such a key point. I hate to think a late night rant on Twitter to a personal friend can make me a target for legal action but it could. With powerful listneing technologies available, companies can put keywords on their radar and act qucikly. Could this represent the next version of ambulance-chasing? Finding potentially litigious comments and extorting money on behalf of clients from people who have a Twit-fit?

  • @Mark – agreed and I may not have been clear. There is no difference now and my point is the rules of libel need to change.

    While each of us are entitled to opinions, it stretches in to libel territory when published by definition. The rules currently used came about at a time when online water coolers didn’t exist.

  • Mark

    @ Reb – Thanks for being the voice for what is probably the overwhelming sentiment. No matter the back story, who wants to do business with a marketing firm who sues its customers?

  • Mark

    @jack — thanks for taking the time to clarify. that makes a lot of sense.

  • @Mark and @Brian
    And if we do see the emergence of “Online Ambulance Chasers”, will this lead to people not commenting online for fear of retribution thus eventually reducing this valuable source of information?

  • Your link to “An article in the local paper reported” doesn’t work. Would love to read that article…

  • @Steve … good question … my hope would be that per @Mark the rules of libel are adjusted to include a deeper respect for user intention.

    I like to think of many Twitter/Facebook conversations as being equivalent to conversations you might have at a bar. Yes, a bar is still a public place and someone could sneak in a tape recorder to broaden the exposure that a conversation has, but it’s hard to call a chat in a bar libel.

    With that said, I’ve watched far too many episodes of Cops and at least once an episode I always hear “oops … I didn’t know about that”. A loophole for honest mistakes is one thing but if its use/misuse can’t be balanced you’re dead on … conversations online will become much less emotional/more censured over time.

  • Perhaps the libel law needs to change, but perhaps its protections are important. Would an aggrieved party have used inflammatory language in AdAge or the WSJ? Calling someone a crook implies that they are guilty of a crime. Being unhappy with a service and saying so isn’t libel (IMO) — but calling someone names that appear to defame them….

    What about when you don’t know whether the harmful speech is true or not? If I retweet the harmful speech and am sued, what is my defense? Under the law as I recall it, I would need to be absent malice and have no knowledge that the speech is false. That would imply some kind of diligence on my part, wouldn’t it?
    Yikes!

  • Although at some point in the future, the libel laws may change, but for now we have to deal with what is. Mark’s comment about a Twit-fit between friends is an interesting one but I think it would only apply to a “private” conversation which as we all know is not an option with Twitter. I”m no lawyer but I don’t believe any private discussion is subject to libel laws but since no discussion on something like Twitter is private, you’d still need to be careful.
    All that being said, it seems as though “The Pizza Kitchen” had the definite intent to make it’s opinion very, very public. There did not seem to be any “private” intent here at all.
    And, as one final comment, vendors sue clients all the time for all kinds of reasons and vice versa. The only issue here is that this “cat fight” has been taken into a public forum for everyone to see sooner that may have been previously possible.

  • Mark

    Sorry about the broken link everyone. It’s fixed!

  • Mark

    @steve I have been in business in a wide variety of positions for nearly 30 years. I’ve never seen one client-provider lawsuit that has worked out for either party in the long run.

    I’m only speaking from my experience and am not claiming to be “right.” But as a general rule, I would never advise a client to sue a customer. You can “fire” them, but don’t sue them.

  • @mark, I totally agree. But it does happen for all kinds of reasons. I think the real point of this is to be sure to take a deep breath (count to 10 etc.)before hitting “enter”.

  • There is no limit to the stupidity of businesses when it comes to social media. I just enjoy watching companies screw themselves, then screw themselves some more, without ever realizing how deep their digging their graves.

  • Tim

    This whole thing is completely ridiculous. These so called “business” people are stifling a persons right to not only free speech (which includes complaining), but also to anyone’s opinion which doesn’t reflect their own. I hope this case is thrown out of court and the judge fines the “Marketing” company for wasting the courts time.

    Seriously, if you say someone an idiot on twitter, facebook or even a youtube comment, according to this recent trend you could end up in court facing bankruptcy. These stupid frivolous lawsuits need to stop. This is also the kind of wasted court time that the world rolls their eyes at everytime this happen in the US.

  • I completely agree with Mark (fire them, but don’t sue them)

    I think it is wisdom which is making businesses here in Japan beware of lawsuits. Both at the individual and corporate level, shouting back is seen as very uncool and a mark of weakness. “Loosing face” would mean loosing business.
    In addition to diverting resources from actual business, your image as a litigious company would scare away future potential clients.
    From a Japanese perspective I wonder if lawyers in the US are acting in their own interest, instead of the long term interest of their clients.

  • sam

    Honestly, companies need to get over themselves and stop suing everyone, including their own customers. So now, if I say I had the “worst latte at (insert a famous coffee shop here) because the milk was spoiled. Won’t ever go there again.” Does that mean the company can sue me for being stupid?

    Horizon Realty should get slapped in the face.

  • Mark

    It’s great to have the international perspective weigh-in. I’m wondering if the laws are that much different or simply the culture is so different? At from Philippe’s perspective, it sounds like culture.

  • Mark

    Some have commented that the laws, which were made with newspapers in mind, should be reformed. Keeping in mind that the laws are meant to protect innocent people, if the laws were reformed, are you sure it would grant MORE freedom to Internet commentary or LESS? After all, newspapers only went “viral” to the extent that you could carry them from one place to another. To extend the same protection for content published on the Internet, wouldn’t the laws have to be even stricter? This would be an excellent topic for our live Twitter chat October 7.

  • Mark

    Check out the handle in the link below. This lady is one of my Twitter followers. Given this discussion, one must wonder where her posts figure into this debate:

    http://twitter.com/STATEFARM_SUCKS

  • Mark,

    Very interesting conversation: the legal aspect of what you say and don’t say on social media sites will be the next big challenge as more and more companies start using conversation monitoring tools.

  • If someone insults you, how about trying to address it with them first, like an adult. Why does everyone have to run to the lawyers first?

  • ummm…
    you gather 50,000 followers
    you make a couple of nasty comments, and then quickly change your twiter settings to “protect my tweets”…. I can hear the fun starting now.
    Could tie up a court for years. (public/private publish/discuss bar/plaza/public).
    Not even to mention those who RT you….
    Oh,
    It’s going to be fun soon.:-)
    cheers.

  • Hi, Mark! STATEFARM_SUCKS here. 🙂

    Funny that you should mention this in a post with the “Horizon Realty” example. When that fiasco was happening I couldn’t help but think “50K for one tweet? What’s 50K times 12,000 tweets?”

    I have had people DM me & warn “you better watch out”. I just say, “What are they going to do? Sue me for a judgement & take my house? Oh, wait! I don’t have a house anymore.”

    Which brings us to this:

    A person with nothing else to lose is a very dangerous thing. 🙂

    Bottom line: I can’t worry about State Farm coming after me. I have only stated my honest opinion, and my story is accurate.

    I’m calling State Farm out. In public.

    It will be interesting to see how this case study plays out. Will State Farm make things right? Or will this turn into another “Horizon Realty?”

    Time will tell. Peace. Angela

  • Mark

    @Vince — Wow … That IS an interesting scenario!

    @Angela First, thanks for following me and contributing to the blog. I’ve looked at your site and was wondering the same thing … and also hoping you are making progress to resolution.

    For those that don’t know what I’m talking about, I recommend you click on Angela’s name and read her story.

  • Hector

    Some of us are just posting NEWS that sources like Bloomberg (Mayor of NY?) and BusinessWeek etc are posting. A Lot of Corporations think they can do what they like. We now have a voice – what chance did we ever get to hear a story like these before now? **nice quote: Dissatisfied customers lead to lost business whether they say it or tweet it. Used to hear it at the water cooler before the layoffs. That’s why these Corporations try to sue, they have unlimited pocketbooks and can drag their feet all day long. Why didn’t PIZZACo have a non disclosure? We have followers now (EverythingthatSucks), the ground has moved. I’m sure the Marketing firm worked hard and go no appreciation by PIZZACo. PIZZACo wanted miracles (for nothing – anybody can do marketing right?) but did it keep up it’s end of the bargain by answering the phones fast and with someone competent (@$6 bucks per hr) did they deliver the Pizza? It’s always the easiest to blame the marketing guy for societies (Choosing other PIZZA’s or choices to $pend) – since marketing is an expense. Did PIZZACo pull it’s finger out – if it did it wouldn’t be litigating would it. Just another lazy attempt to shift blame from PIZZACo management to someone else so PIZZACo management can keep their jobs. The wool has been removed from our eyes. I’d like to shop elsewhere and have a choice. Frozen PIZZA keeps getting better. lawyers in the US are acting in their own interest, most of Congress and the Senate are Lawyers. PIZZACo pizza sucks. Always blame the marketing guy when you needed to blame yourselves. 2 years is how long it takes for a marketing campaign to work in normal times.

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