Not so long ago, if somebody wanted to have their complaint heard, the best options were to write a letter to the newspaper (and hope that it would be published) or dial into the radio. now, in the digital age, everyone has a voice. Never before has it been easier to have your concerns or thoughts heard – no matter how insignificant or trivial they are – and that has implications for estate managers.
Anyone could publish something on social media that is hugely defamatory about the estate and one of its principals, for example:
“Pinecones Estate is running a fraudulent operation and Joe Blogs is a criminal – they overcharge me for levies every month and he uses my money to fUnd his personal lifestyle”
Assuming that there is absolutely no truth to the statement, a number of legal options may be applicable:
- Defamation — it may be appropriate for Pinecones Estate to sue the publisher of the post for defamation. However, defamation cases are notoriously very costly and lengthy, and the awards in South Africa are usually very low.
- Crimen injuria — Joe Bloggs may consider laying a criminal charge of crimen injuria (infringement of dignity) against the publisher of the content.
- Protection order — Joe Bloggs could consider obtaining a protection order against the publisher of the content under the Protection from Harassment Act.
With cases like these, depending on the nature of the content, the quickest option and fastest way of achieving the desired result is usually a letter of demand from your legal representatives requesting that the content be deleted, and that the individual refrains from publishing further.
While there are legal options available, often the law is simply too slow. Even once the relevant legal action has been taken, the content has been viewed, shared, retweeted and/or screenshots have been taken and shared. At this point, from a reputational perspective, the damage has been done. For this reason, it is often advisable to manage these situations reputationally.
While it is very tempting to become a ‘keyboard warrior’ and jump to the defence of the estate, you should always consider whether responding is the best way to deal with the matter, or whether it will add fuel to the fire. Sometimes a response creates what reputation management experts refer to as the ‘Barbara Streisand effect’ – drawing far more attention to the post than it had in the first place.
Before deciding whether to respond, and how and where to respond, consider the reputational harm of the content and the scope of its reach. Has it been posted on a neighbourhood Facebook group with 20,000 members and gone viral, or is it lurking on an unknown individual’s Facebook page with 30 followers? Sometimes addressing the mater privately, i.e. responding to the concern by messaging the poster privately, is the most appropriate course of action. Some content warrants no response at all. If you are unsure, it is always a good idea to call in the help of a reputation expert.
Prevention is always better than cure so, to ensure that you are prepared in the event that you are the subject of a negative social media post, here are some helpful tips:
- Appoint a qualified individual or organisation who is tasked to deal with communications for the estate, and make sure that all board members and principals are aware that all communications on behalf of the estate should be channelled through that person.
- Ensure that anyone responsible for managing the estate Facebook page is aware of the legal responsibilities of a Facebook page administrator. In terms of South African law, the administrator of a Facebook page is responsible for all user-generated content on that page. If the administrator does not remove negative/unlawful/illegal content on that page once asked to do so, he or she could be as responsible for that content as the person who posted it initially.
- Consider guidelines for estate WhatsApp groups. Estate WhatsApp groups can be a hotbed of negative content. Having guidelines for these groups can assist in ensuring that the content remains appropriate, above board, legal and aligned to the purpose of the group. For examples of such guidelines, visit: www.thedigitallawco.com/whatsapp/10-tips-whatsapp-groups/
- Enlist the services of a reputation management expert if you are uncertain how to deal with negative content on social media.