Sued for a tweet: How not to deal with complaints on Twitter

A Chicago firm finds that filing a $50,000 suit against a tenant who tweeted about mold brings some unwanted publicity.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Before this week, few knew anything about Amanda Bonnen and her alleged mold problem, or much of anything about Horizon Group Management and their apartments. Now, a local complaint made via a tweet has turned into a national issue – with lessons for both Twitterers and companies targeted by tweets.

Ms. Bonnen tweeted in May about mold in her Chicago apartment, and Horizon Group Management answered with a $50,000 defamation lawsuit. News of the suit sped around the Internet Monday after a Chicago blogger caught wind of the complaint.

The social media lesson here? Yes, Twitterers should be careful what they write, especially if their account isn't private, experts say. But, they add, companies should also be careful how they respond to a negative tweet – handling it badly could result in a public relations nightmare.

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"Now, everyone is going to think that Horizon has moldy apartments even though their intention of bringing the complaint was to say they didn't," says San Francisco attorney Colette Vogele, who specializes in legal issues surrounding technology and new media.

"There could have been a way to solve this that didn't make it go viral," says Ms. Vogele.

Here's what Bonnen wrote on the microblogging site: "Who said sleeping in a moldy apartment was bad for you? Horizon realty thinks it's okay."

Horizon, which denied there was mold, said it's suing because that one tweet could be heard around the world. Bonnen had only 17 people following her tweets on the microblogging site, but she had a public account that could be viewed by anyone searching for her comments.

This isn't the first Twitter-related lawsuit. That honor went to rocker Courtney Love who was sued over tweets about fashion designer Dawn Simorangkir. And, experts say, more suits are bound to come.

People can be held accountable for a tweet because it's a published comment in a public forum, says Vogele. Still, she and others say they would advise companies to be careful before taking legal action.

Horizon is facing some negative PR since its lawsuit was made public. A company spokesman told the Chicago Sun-Times that it's "a sue first, ask questions later kind of organization."

As the company is now discovering, social media has given consumers new kinds of leverage over corporations.

"Horizon is about to learn the hard way," wrote Augie Ray, a social media marketing professional, on the Social Media Today blog. "Companies can no longer effectively manage their reputations via legal actions and consumers are no longer at a disadvantage in the face of bullying lawsuits."

"If you are going to sue someone [over a tweet] you are already putting yourself in a bad position," says Dom Sagolla, author of the forthcoming book "140 Characters: A Style Guide for the Short Form."

Mr. Sagolla, who writes about effective ways for businesses to use Twitter, says it's best to deal with a complaint on Twitter via Twitter, an approach that companies such as Comcast and various municipalities have embraced with success.

"Lots of companies have turned customer complaints into gold," wrote Mr. Ray. "By monitoring Twitter and other Social Media channels, smart organizations seek out legitimate complaints from displeased customers, proactively solve them, and snatch victory from the jaws of consumer disenchantment."

Still, says Sagolla, users of Twitter often underestimate its reach. "One hundred and forty characters is just enough space to stay something powerful for good or ill…. We should take it a lot more seriously."

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