I was thinking back to the days when I owned an Internet company and encountered some women who decided they didn’t like me (we had never met). They set out to badmouth me to whoever would listen - including the press - as well as publishing false statements about me online. It was a very painful experience for me, especially since my entire business revolved around teaching and helping women and girls get online. I was floored that other women felt the need to put me down - as an author, as a businesswoman and even as a person - as a way of “competing.”
First, let’s define the difference between libel and slander.
Libel is defined as “a false and malicious statement published in writing or through broadcast media for the purpose of defaming a living person.”
Slander is an untruthful oral (spoken) statement about a person that harms their reputation or standing in the community.
Since slander is a “civil wrong,” the injured person - you - can bring a lawsuit against the person who made the false statement. If the statement is made through broadcast media such as on the radio or on television, it would then be considered libel versus slander because the statement has the potential to reach a very wide audience.
If you are a public figure, you may have to prove actual malice on your competitor’s part, that is, that they knowingly or recklessly published or stated something false.
So what should you do if your competitors get ugly? Here are some options:
1. Ignore it. Sometimes the best course of action is to ignore someone else’s false and hurtful statements about you and your business rather than draw more attention to them. You can deal with fallout from their statements on an individual basis if people come to you for an explanation. But even without you fanning their flames, the fire can still get out of control.
2. Take the high road. If you are asked for your opinion, do not say anything disparaging about anyone. My tactic was even to go so far as “killing” my detractors with kindness. I’d say really nice things about them in public and to the media, then let people decide for themselves who was more professional and more credible.
3. Broadcast a response. If a little sugar doesn’t dispel the bitterness, find some relevant and high-exposure challenges to broadcast, post or publish a response - not directly to their accusations or statements - but giving a clear picture of your point of view and the facts. Be careful not to look defensive or offensive, just matter of fact and again, professional.
4. Send a Cease & Desist. If things are really getting ugly and it is hurting business, it may be time for a lawyer to step in. The first course of legal action is to have your lawyer compose and mail a cease and desist letter specifying exactly what falsehoods you are asking them to cease perpetuating. Make sure you’ve kept very careful records of their statements. And keep in mind that a cease & desist letter could be like gasoline on a fire, and they could publish it online or distribute it to others.
5. Take legal action. If we’re talking about major losses or damage to your company or reputation, you may want to invest in bringing a suit against your competitor. You must have a lot of evidence and show their clear intent to do you harm. This is definitely a last resort.
If the statement your competitor makes is their opinion and not a statement of verifiable fact, then the statement they made may not be defamatory.
In law, truth is an absolute defense, however, truth can be difficult and costly to prove.
(definitions paraphrased from Nolo.com)
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