Archive for October, 2009


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

twittercase

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