As reported on Mashable today, US based property management firm, Horizon Realty, have made a major public relations blunder by threatening to sue one of their tenants for US$50 000 over a single tweet. The story unfolds as follows.
On May 12, 2009, Amanda Bonnen, a former Horizon tenant tweeting as abonnen, sent an @ reply to a friend stating:
“You should come anyway. Who said sleeping in a moldy apartment was bad for you? Horizon realty think it’s ok”.
According to the Chicago Sun-Times Horizon’s response was to file a lawsuit against Bonnen “claiming one of her alleged Twitter posts “maliciously and wrongfully” slammed her apartment…and the company managing it.”
Mashable claim that, at the time the abonnen account was deleted from Twitter, it had approximately 20 followers and, in any case, “wasn’t a particularly heavy Twitter user“. In threatening to sue over a single tweet Horizon’s actions are akin to cracking a nut with a sledge hammer. But the story gets more bizarre. Quoted by the Sun-Times Horizon spokesman Jeffrey Michael boasted, “We’re a sue first, ask questions later kind of an organization.” Clearly Horizon want to be known as a company not to be messed with.
Friends of Horizon might point out that their actions caused the offending tweet to be deleted; and they’re right. The $50 000 tweet no longer exists. Indeed they’ve shown themselves to be a tough, single-minded business without care for favourable public opinion.
But these are short-term wins more than offset by long-term losses; a matter of winning the battle but losing the war. A quick internet or Twitter search for the term Horizon or Horizon Realty Group reveals a vast amount of unfavourable articles and comments about Horizon and their business practices. Typical of the tone, from @timmmorgan: “Horizon Realty Group. What a shite company. http://www.horizonrealtygroup.com.”
By any reasonable assessment Horizon’s actions have been an outstanding failure. In threatening to sue over a paltry tweet then bragging of a “sue first, ask questions later” policy they have provided the community in which they live rightful cause for a public expression of outrage.
So how might Horizon have managed this scenario better? In the first instance Horizon should have been actively listening to what was being said about them on the web. Had they been listening they would have been aware of, and could have acknowledged the existence of, the offending tweet. A Twitter @ reply or direct message, an email, or a phone call would have served to let the tenant know that they took her concerns seriously. The mere act of acknowledging a tweet is sometimes all it takes for the process of resolution to begin, and often the tweet is removed voluntarily as a result. Next, Horizon should have placed the tweet in perspective. As Mashable’s Pete Cashmore points out, Bonnen had just a few followers. It was highly unlikely for her message to achieve any sort of traction. Threatening to sue over something so trivial only served to demonstrate the company’s thin-skinned insecurities. Finally, the spokesman should not have made such glib, ham-fisted remarks to a reporter. They served to inflame the situation and provided a perfect quote for a myriad of tweets and blog posts.
Horizon’s mistakes serve as a powerful reminder of the new rules faced by all real estate businesses. These rules aren’t made in courts of law but through millions of inter-connected conversations occurring on Twitter and Facebook and blogs the world over. To ignore them is to court disaster. Just ask the team at Horizon.