Difficult client? Sue the bastard!

judge with gavel
A Greek Apple authorised Service Provider has taken a client to court because he complained online about their service. According to the company, the client slandered their good name and they are seeking € 200 000 (about $ 267 000) in damages. Now I do not know who was right or wrong in this case, but from a Public Relations point of view the company (System Graph) made an enormous mistake. For example: imagine you live in Greece and you contemplate buying an Apple computer from them. Enter "System Graph Apple" in Google and this story is right there on the front page. Would that influence your purchase decision? I think it would. More importantly, the story is over the entire internet, where the customer is generally perceived as the underdog and the company as being 'evil'. This will have a longer term impact since something on the internet doesn't disappear easily. But let's look at this from a larger perspective:

It is my guess that System Graph was largely unaware of the changing state of our communication. And that a large number of organisations are unaware as well. They forget that each and every customer that walks into their shop has access to a (potential) mass medium: the internet. They also miss the aspect that any local communication has the potential to instantly 'go global' through these channels and ripple out. Because of this global effect, the whole story has a negative impact on Apple as well, even though they have absolutely nothing to do with this. On various forums I have seen reactions like: "See, this is proof that Apple doesn't care about it's customers". Apple's image in the mind of some people will be negatively effected even though this is completely beyond their control.

How to handle situations like this?

  • If nothing else, I think System Graph should have 'taken their losses'. Just let the client have his say on the forums. Yes, that would not be good for their name, but it isn't nearly half as bad as the current situation. Perhaps they overestimated the reach of the forums in question?
  • A slightly better approach would have been to enter in the interaction on the forums. This might be a risky proposition: you do not want to get into a shouting match. Instead of directly discussing the matter of the dispute, they could have invited the customer to contact them directly in an effort to resolve the matter. This would at least have portrayed them as 'reasonable' instead of 'hostile'.
  • The best way to handle this would have been to resolve the issue directly with the client, before things get online. Now this is not always possible. Sometimes a client can be completely unreasonable. Yet, as this case points out, taking them to court is not an option from a Public Relations point of view.

Organisations (both commercial and non-commercial) need to rethink their approach to Public Relations. The takeaway from this example is that every interaction between a member of the organisation with someone else is basically part of the organisation's Public Relations. Every small interaction can go from face-to-face to global in a matter of hours. It pays to be aware of this in your everyday activities.

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