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by Elizabeth Zielinski, CMM | August 11, 2014

Meeting professionals have always relied heavily on recommendations from peers in order to help us narrow down our vast list of choices in selecting vendors. I simply don't know how we would make good decisions in the same amount of time if we didn't have access to information about the experiences of others. In recent years, what has always been an informal process for us, has expanded heavily online to include individual buyers and hosts of social events on numerous consumer review websites. With that, a public platform has been offered to anyone who wants to either celebrate or condemn a vendor.

You may have seen a recent news story about a guest house in Hudson, N.Y, that issued a policy of fining group hosts $500 each for any bad review posted by a member of their party on an internet site. The policy, since changed, was a ridiculous one by any standard of good service and largely unenforceable from a practical or legal perspective. But it definitely served as a warning to consumers about the growing awareness of host facilities to protect their online reputations from disgruntled customers. They are more aware than ever that reviews are influencing sales.

The fact that anyone is willing to share his or her experiences is valuable to each of us as a buyer. In my experience, most meeting professionals are willing to speak freely to one another about their experiences on a one-to-one basis, but they tend to limit their comments online. Speaking publicly is valuable, but it also has risks. Industry forums encourage members to share only good reviews, and allow the buyer to determine the bad ones based on a relative absence of positive commentary. Doing so protects any individual from unwittingly defaming a vendor with a negative review. While I understand the inclination, I don't agree that it's a necessary or even helpful step for any of us to take. I'm frustrated by what seems to be a growing fear of sharing our experiences openly and fairly with fellow professionals. I think we should share the bad as well as the good.

Under the law, defamation involves making a false statement that harms a reputation. Thus, the best defense against any potential accusation that your comments have harmed a business is by telling only the truth.

Begin by separating the emotion from the situation. It's easy to feel personally wronged when you've worked closely with an on-site team, paid a huge bill, and in turn are left looking poorly to your employer or attendees. But your feelings about what happened at the venue aren't the issue; only the facts about what brought you to that point are relevant. Opinions can be shared, but not in such a way that tells a reader how to act on your opinion. Omit exaggeration, and never report anything you didn't personally experience, no matter how reliable the source. Most of all, stay true to the intent of the review, which is to offer information that can benefit others, and to help your peers make better marketplace choices.

Meeting professionals take notice when someone tosses around the question of potential liability, and I'm concerned that this trend toward repercussions for reviewers will eventually limit our willingness to share valid and helpful information with one another. Instead, let's be empowered to share, based on a solid understanding of what is and isn't appropriate.

Have you ever withheld commentary about a bad experience because of concerns about liability? Tell me about it via the comments below, or via email to LizontheBiz@gmail.com. You can also find me on Twitter, @E_Zielinski.