July 28, 2014

Wedding vendors counter negative online comments with non-disparagement clauses

by Clark Brooks

The devil is in the details; read your wedding contract carefully, especially the fine print. Before seal the deal with that wedding planner who had great reviews on two or three websites or that photographer who rocked your world with their stunning photography, you might want take a real close look at some of the terms, conditions and yes, penalties hidden in their service agreement.

With their online persona exposed to the world, more and more wedding vendors are including language to their service agreement that will forbid you to post negative comments and reviews about the inferior service they may have provided. Any comments you post could subject you to fines or a lawsuit for thousands of dollars.

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Photographers, reception halls, mobile disc jockeys and cake designers are following in the footsteps of other independent professionals by adding "Non-Disparagement" clauses to their service contracts. The sole purpose of this clause is to keep clients from damaging, warranted or not, their business reputation online.

Jeff Guyer penned an article on the DIY Photography website describing a meeting with a potential client, a bride seeking his services for her upcoming wedding. A former attorney, Guyer was shocked when she showed him a contract from another photographer that stated:

"Client further agrees that they will not disparage Photographer, or post any negative comments, reviews, feedback, complaints, insults, or other counter-productive content about Photographer or services provided in any online forum, chat room, or message board, including but not limited to Facebook, Twitter, and The Knot."

In this day and age of online reviews, one can bet their sweet bippy that any company or service provider that includes this language in their contract either has had issues in the past or expects them in the future. A vendor that is attentive, provides gold standard service and takes pride in their reputation will likely omit such language from their contractual agreements.

Before signing a vendor contract, look for the words confidentiality, non-review, non-disparagement. If you find these words, read the paragraph carefully. You might want to do additional research on the vendor before making a commitment to use their services.

"Before you sign, start by asking the potential vendor to remove it. At this point, the terms of contract are negotiable. After you sign it, you could be on the hook for a large payout, expensive legal fees or the inability to post honest reviews of the service you receive."
In some cases, vendors are just looking for a legal means and deterrent to justifiably protect their online reputation from the rants of the occasional revenge-seeking, hard to please species of bridezillas known exist.

If search long and hard enough with Google, you will find multiple cases of wedding vendors, in addition to cosmetic surgeons, building contractors, watch repair shops, dentists and websites zealously pursuing former clients for damages upwards of $10,000 or more.

When a vendor or business owner resolves to go after a client for breaching the clause, it is known as "Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation", or SLAPP in the legal arena. The goal is to burden the offending client with court and legal fees forcing them into submission. Some vendors will be satisfied when the client to remove the offending post or modifies it to their liking. Others service providers may very well use the clause as an additional revenue stream by collecting a substantial fine which is usually buried in the fine print.

Illinois and 29 other states have anti-SLAPP legislation on the books that makes it easier for judges to dismiss cases against brides who speak up. According to Digital Trends, the Supreme Court has made several favorable rulings to slap SLAPP cases down.

There are some things you can do if run across this language in your contract.

Before you sign, start by asking the potential vendor to remove it. At this point, the terms of contract are negotiable. After you sign it, you could be on the hook for a large payout, expensive legal fees or the inability to post honest reviews of the service you receive. Have the vendor produce a fresh contract without the offensive clause in it to sign.

If the vendor hesitates or refuses to strike the sentences from our agreement, common sense suggests - especially in the case of a once in a lifetime event like a wedding, the most significant day in your life - you might want to reconsider your decision to rely on that vendor.

While chances are everything will workout just peachy, you will probably have less to fear if you are working with a business offering services for seven years or longer. It would be a good idea to solicit comments within a Facebook wedding group or fan page catering to local brides for wedding supplies and services.

If this is a vendor you really want to provide services to you and your guests, you can ignore the clause and sign the agreement.

Can you still post an other than honest review of your experience using that vendor? The answer to that question is it depends. When in doubt, consult a lawyer in your state if it is really important for readers to know how poorly you were treated or that the vendor provided. He or she can suggest various ways to communicate your negative experience properly.

While only a few cases have gone through the court system, settling the issue in court is highly complex and the outcome, depending on the jurisdiction your case is filed, is highly unpredictable at this point. If you have an endless supply of cash in your purse - likely not considering the money you spent on the wedding, reception and honeymoon - and confine your comments to the truth, it might be worth it to warn other brides of the pitfalls or poor service you were provided.

When it comes to writing a review, websites like Digital Trends, Offbeat Bride and Forbes offer some thoughts on the matter.

The mutual caution is to avoid defaming the vendor. You must be 100% factual in any statement you make. Documenting problems at the time they occur either via collaborating statements, photos/video or audio will go along way in protecting your review. Making false statements, facts known or that can be proven not true, will get you in hot water.

Second, offer opinions. Make it clear at the beginning or end of the post that you are stating your opinion. Keep them subjective and honest. Avoid long rants and hyperbolas.

Do not make accusations. Making allegations on a person's character or that they committed a criminal offense will get you in hot water pretty quick. Avoid name-calling and threats as well.

With a membership well over 14,00, we posted a message on the Wedding and Portrait Photographers International group page on Facebook asking photographers if they included non-review or non-disparagement language in their contracts and if so why they added it. As of today, we have yet to receive a comment from professionals who are members of the online community.

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