HB 131 Consumer Speech Bill Becomes Law in October– Is Your Business’s Reputation Management and Social Media Plan Ready?

By Diane Devaney, president

Maryland will become only the second state in the country to ban the use of non-disparagement clauses in contracts as of this fall. House Bill 131, which goes into effect on October 1, 2016, prohibits “a contract or a proposed contract for the sale or lease of consumer goods or services from including a provision waiving the consumer’s right to make a specified statement.”

This means that customers are free to post or share any information, including negative comments and opinions, about their interactions with your company without concern for possible legal actions. It also means that your company needs to be ready with a robust reputation management strategy and social media plan in case this happens, since most consumers take to social media first when they have an issue with a product or service.

Companies that currently have a strong social media strategy in place likely won’t need to do anything different. These companies already have a strong reputation with the public and media, and typically have a robust, positive social media presence. For companies that enjoy a good reputation and strong relationship with their audience on social media, inaccurate comments and complaints will likely be self-policed by their many happy customers, who will quickly call out and challenge unwarranted attacks.  In the case of a legitimate complaint, the company itself will have the mechanisms in place to quickly and appropriately respond to the customer and move the issue offline.

Unfortunately, many companies aren’t ready to handle online issues effectively. Often due to lack of internal resources, their social media strategy may be poorly executed, if it exists at all, and their reputation management efforts may be minimal. Their focus is likely limited to only those complaints or issues that are brought to their immediate attention, and they often lack an engaged social media audience. Those companies will be most vulnerable when this rule takes effect as they lack both a system for swiftly responding to complaints and the social media support to have the market self-police inaccurate comments.

The next several months offer a critical window for companies to review and update their reputation management and social media plans. Make sure your company has a strong public and media relations plan in place. Review your social media strategy and update staff on how to appropriately handle customer complaints online. Ensure that everyone who works on your company’s social media is aware of your policies and can respond appropriately to any consumer issues.

It may make sense to bring in an outside expert to review your plans. Devaney & Associates specializes in helping companies promote themselves, manage their reputation and position themselves for success in today’s online world. We’ll be happy to work with you to create and execute the strategies and tactics you’ll need for success – just give me a call any time.