The Cavity In Dr. Wong's Case -- Or, Why Filing Suit Isn't The Best Way To Manage Your Online Reputation

One social media topic that's held my fascination lately is how to manage one's online reputation. I'm not talking here about how a big corporation does it, but how little guys and gals -- like, say, me -- do it. At which point I happened to read about the resolution of the case of California dentist Yvonne Wong, who, according to this story from MediaPost, has been asked to pay $81,000 in legal fees to Yelp and the couple whom she sued. The couple had complained on Yelp "that their son was left lightheaded from laughing gas administered by Wong, and that he received a filling containing mercury." (The offending review is no longer on the site.) 

So much for her claim that the review had led her to emotional distress. That seems like nothing compared to having to cough up $81,000 to Yelp and the people who you say libeled you. You can read the down-and-dirty of the court case in the story, but suffice to say that even if Dr. Wong had won, it's clear this woman didn't need a lawyer; she needed a social media strategy and an SEO specialist. That, or she should have just left well enough alone.

Of course, upon reading about the case, the first thing I did was Google "Yvonne Wong." Even without adding the initials DDS to the search, her Web site is the first thing tied to her that comes up in the rankings, despite the coverage the case has received. The next mention of her comes in at number ten -- and it's her review on Yelp, where she rates a respectable 4.5 stars. In other words, most of the reviews are positive; it's unclear whether she took any time to rally pleased patients to her defense. In fact, it's not until the next search result on Google that the suit actually comes up.

Of course, Googling "Yvonne Wong DDS" makes the court case come up higher, but it's still only no. 5. And let's not forget that if Dr. Wong hadn't sued, the whole incident may well have been buried by now. 

So, poor Dr. Wong. There's a lesson to be learned here, but it doesn't look like she's learned it: rally your patients to your side, make sure that every online touchpoint over which you have control features comments from pleased clients, and -- above all -- don't sue. Even if you win, it just propagates the negative review.   

It reminds me of a plea my husband and I got six years ago from a couple who operate a group of cabins in Maine that we've stayed at many times. They got in touch because someone had taken them to task on TripAdvisor, and they needed to fight back, using their regular guests as their best defense.

The review by the aggrieved customer accused them of all sorts of things -- including charging for three nights of what turned out to be a two-night stay. The review angered us, not only because we'd come to know the couple a bit, but also because it in no way resembled the great experiences we've had there. Of course, we wrote a positive review. 

In writing this column today, I went back to their page on TripAdvisor. (No, I'm not going to link to it because the negative review is still there. I wish it was dead and buried.) I'd forgotten this, but the camp's owners wrote a detailed rebuttal that, at the very least, cast reasonable doubt on the negative reviewer's story, pointing out, among other things, that they did not charge the aggrieved customer for three nights. Even though not every review of the cabins is great, the net effect is that that person looks peevish, whiny.

Another interesting observation: that more people said they found individual reviews helpful when they were positive than when they were negative. Call it online self-policing, the wisdom of the crowd, or what have you, but people want to believe in the positive.

Dr. Wong could have employed many of the same tactics, not to mention saving herself a lot of money. Now one of the main things we know about her is that she's a dentist who lost a court case against one of her patients for posting a negative review. Not the reputation any of us wants to have.

(OMMA Social New York is happening on June 9th. Check out the agenda here.)

Tags: social media
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