Legal eye: ‘Can we challenge negative online reviews?’

screen-shot-2016-11-04-at-15-50-18Joanna Sharr of Ridouts answers your legal questions.

Our residential rehab has a good reputation but is the target of a negative online campaign by a disgruntled resident. How can we challenge this?

The advent of social media and the ability of individuals to make online reviews has placed significant power into the hands of those who may wish to damage a service’s reputation. Even if your contract with the service user has regard to the use of social media while resident, engaging contractual provisions does not remedy the underlying issue.

This is a sensitive issue and should be handled with care; if dealt with in a heavy-handed manner, not only could the service be perceived to be unreasonable, but the online campaign could easily escalate to cause further damage to the service’s reputation.

For whatever reason, the resident did not seek to raise their concerns with the service directly but went to social media to vent their concerns. Perhaps the resident did not feel that their issues would be taken seriously, but they should be reassured by the service that they are. We would therefore treat the online campaign as a complaint.

A service’s formal complaint procedure should involve particularising the concerns and recording them, exploring the issues and possible resolutions and ultimately responding to the complaint. It may be helpful to include the resident’s family (or advocate if there is any capacity issue) in any discussions to ensure that the resident feels supported throughout the process. The service should discuss the outcome of the matter with the resident and ensure that the situation is resolved to the resident’s satisfaction. This will also help evidence CQC’s key questions, ‘well-led’ and ‘responsive’ in any future CQC inspections.

The resident should be encouraged to raise any future concerns or complaints with the service directly. The service could request the resident removes their negative comments from social media and ask that the resident desists from using social media to vent any future concerns about the service, particularly if the matter had been resolved to their satisfaction.

There will always be cases where, no matter what a service does, a resident will simply be unhappy and will seek to maintain their damaging course of action online. If that happens, and all conciliatory routes are exhausted, the service may wish to consider its contractual options to serve notice to the resident. This course of action will not necessarily quell the negative social media campaign and may lead to an increase in posts. We would advise taking specific legal advice regarding contractual remedies and the implications and subsequent actions that could be required if the matter cannot be resolved amicably.

Joanna Sharr is a solicitor at Ridouts LLP, a practice of health and social care lawyers,