Hotel flubs its attempt to thwart bad reviews

Whoever said that all publicity is good publicity never ran the Union Street Guest House in Hudson, N.Y. The establishment has received a barrage of criticism for an alleged $500 charge to wedding parties for every bad review posted online, as the New York Post originally reported. The hotel's page on consumer review site Yelp has been flooded with hundreds of complaints.

Union Street is an example of a recent Web phenomenon: Companies struggling to deal with bad reviews on popular websites. Sometimes companies are scared of losing customers and other times they object to unreasonable and untrue remarks.

The one sure thing is that a heavy-handed approach can backfire all too easily.

Although Union Street has removed any mention of the $500 charge since the wave of publicity, an archived version of the hotel's terms for events still has the wording. After explaining that some guests might not appreciate the "historic" nature and "artistic 'vintage'" style, and suggesting that the bride and groom "explain that to them," the site formerly offered the following:

If you have booked the Inn for a wedding or other type of event anywhere in the region and given us a deposit of any kind for guests to stay at USGH there will be a $500 fine that will be deducted from your deposit for every negative review of USGH placed on any internet site by anyone in your party and/or attending your wedding or event If you stay here to attend a wedding anywhere in the area and leave us a negative review on any internet site you agree to a $500. fine for each negative review. (Please NOTE we will not charge this fee &/or will refund this fee once the review is taken down).

Since the publicity, the hotel reportedly claimed that the $500 fine was a joke that they had forgotten to take down. A MoneyWatch request for clarification has yet to be answered. However, an updated 2013 review by Yelp user Rabih Z. suggested otherwise.

On Sept. 23, Rabih Z. called the Union Street a "disappointment" and complained about a "musty smell," "rudeness" of the manager or owner, and a bad reservation policy. Then on Nov. 21, he amended the review to address a claim that the hotel "had the gall to email us twice to threaten us financially about the negative review." Specifically, the hotel allegedly said that it would charge the party whose wedding the reviewer had attended $500.

Trying to charge customers for bad reviews isn't a new practice. A patient reportedly sued New York City dentist Stacy Makhnevich in 2011 after she had allegedly fined him $100 a day for a scathing review he had left on Yelp. To get treatment, the patient, Robert Lee, had to sign an agreement that assigned copyright for any statements he made to Makhnevich.

Contractor Christopher Dietz reportedly sued Jane Perez for $750,000 after the Virginia woman said in reviews on Yelp and Angie's List that Dietz had damaged her home and stolen some of her jewelry.

Even if a business doesn't try to charge a customer, verbal hardball can blow up in their faces. A classic example is Amy's Baking Company, which had a massive social media meltdown after a terrible appearance on the reality show Kitchen Nightmares.

Some business owners are bad at taking criticism, even when valid. There are also consumers who have unreasonable expectations or who will make unwarranted remarks. Sometimes competitors will pretend to be customers and leave bad feedback in a bid to damage their rivals.

There are several steps a company can take to minimize the damage from bad reviews:

  • If you can show that the feedback was left by a competitor or you can prove that it was factually untrue, ask the review site to have it taken down. Although not always effective, sometimes the requests are granted.
  • If the site won't take the review down, post the evidence in a non-personal way as a response to the review.
  • Highlight positive reviews that you have received and other strengths, although avoid being defensive.
  • Address any problems with empathy, understanding that what doesn't seem like much to you might to the customer.

The best advice, however, is to fix problems when they happen and follow up with customers. Wait for a brooding customer to finally address a problem online and you've likely already lost the PR battle.

  • Erik Sherman On Twitter»

    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.

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