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.

______________________________________________

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

Is social media the new corporate star-maker?

bewitched darrin

A few months back I did a fun interview with Susan Wassel, the social media voice for Sharpie pens.  Susan made me a believer. If you can bring pens to life over Twitter, just about anything is possible.

So here is a debate I have with my customers: Do you have a real person (like Susan) represent your company on social media or a corporate logo with a rotating line-up behind the scenes (like most companies)?

Susan represents the ying and yang of this argument.  On the positive side, she has built a faithful following of nearly 4,000 who tune in to hear the latest Sharpie adventures of her friends and family.  She is an enthusiastic, charming woman who has come to personify the brand online.

Now the downside.  Some day Sharpie Susan will move on.  Remember the feeling you had when they replaced the first “Darren” on Bewitched?   That was hard to take.  There was a pretender in the role.  I don’t want a SharpieKim or SharpieFred or even (gasp) SharpieDarren.  I want my SharpieSusan dammit.

This is the ultimate two-edged sword of establishing your company’s voice online.  What happens when a solitary person BECOMES the brand?  Where do all those followers go when your spokesperson leaves … and joins your competitor for more money?  Sure, the company will survive, but why make the investment in developing the talent when you don’t have to?  Avoid the risk.

If you’re a talented communicator with a great personality interested in being a corporate social media persona, this is great news by the way.  Becoming your company’s social media rockstar may be the ultimate job security.  Or, you might be sentencing yourself to social media hell. Do you really want to be the company Pat Sajak for the next 20 years?  Any way, we will certainly see a growing number of popular corporate bloggers whose importance and value to the company will grow exponentially.

To close the loop, my recommendation to my customers is to provide a real face to the world. Nobody wants to relate to a logo.  But I don’t have answers to the hard questions I’ve raised here, either.  Let’s hear from you on the subject …

Flunkin’ Dunkin Donuts

donut

This is going to be one sweet blog.  It’s about donuts and ice cream.  What’s not to like?

Am I out of touch or does the following statement also strike you as deep-fried, chocolate-covered hooey?

“Customers will decide what our brand is about. And there is nothing we can do about it.  And that is a very liberating thing. In the end, you can’t control it. And that’s the beauty of social media.  And that means marketers have to let go – a little.”

This is a comment made by Dunkin’ Donuts Brand Marketing Officer Frances Allen during last week’s OMMA conference in NYC.*

I had a visceral reaction to this statement.  It hits all the popular social media buzzwords about the power of consumers and letting go of the conversation … but let’s not sugar-coat anything (yes, that was intentional) — this  just strikes me as so wrong.

I don’t know France Allen and I’m not that familiar with the history of DD, but I do know quite a bit about Ben & Jerry’s (a U.S. premium ice cream brand) because I teach a case about the company in one of my classes.  Seems like this is a similar, sweet, occasion-based treat, so for argument’s sake, let’s lump the two companies in the same product category.

There are so many ice cream brands on the grocery aisle, it can make your head spin.  But B&J stands out like no other brand by promoting three core values:

1)    Fun. Everything about B&J is playful: the names of the flavors, the packaging, the website, their crazy contests.

2)    Quality. It’s an expensive treat and B&J are fanatic about their ingredients and how they’re blended. One famous R&D innovation was developing the first real marshmallow stripes in an ice cream.

3)    Social responsibility. The founders of the company set out to show that you could create a company that can also take care of people and the planet.

The B&J marketing folks go to extreme measures to develop and market products that enhance this precious brand image.  And they have done a superb job, creating a powerful brand equity for the B&J name.

Who decided these three brand pillars – what the brand is about?  Consumers?  Perhaps indirectly, but no, a marketing team is responsible for the brand vision. No focus group handed it to them on a silver platter.

Are consumers in charge of the brand image?   No again.  While every nuance of their product offering is tested exhauastively, talented marketing professionals drive the image through brilliant products, strategies and advertising.

Have the marketers “let go” of their brand since the advent of social media?  I honestly don’t think anything has changed at all.  Sure, there are new tools to “listen” and “engage,” but marketers have ALWAYS listened and engaged. This is just a new way to do it.  I think it’s pretty arrogant of any marketer to assume they had control of a consumer conversation in the first place.

So how do you reconcile the Dunkin’ Donut position with my views of social media’s impact on traditional marketing?  Or can you?  Are we flunkin’ Dunkin Donuts?

Disclosure:  I would choose a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Cinnamon Bun Ice Cream over two dozen Dunkin Donuts any day.

*This comment was featured in a blog by Nitin Gupta, a regular contributor to the {grow} community.  I highly recommend his blog ‘Digital Marketing Today.” 

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...