The public relations power of the user review

By Matter

In the modern era, the consumer is king. Companies who previously walked over their customers now live in fear of the almighty user review, and rightfully so. Mobile devices, the internet and centralized user reviews now dictate whether a company survives, thrives or dies. Think I’m exaggerating?

As of August 5, 2014, Yelp, the ‘online urban guide,’ has just under 29 million unique monthly visitors. Businesses are finally noticing the power possessed by services such as Yelp, Google Reviews or Angie’s List. These days when people are looking to purchase a product or service they turn to the internet, a resource where they can find reviews, ratings and even price comparisons of just about anything. Thanks to advancements in technology, you can access the internet on your phone, tablet, wrist watch or even your refrigerator, seriously.

Take a second to think about the process you undertake before you make a significant purchase. You look at prices online, you browse multiple websites that carry the product or service you’re looking for, and you compare brands because you want to be positive that you’re getting the right product for the right price. Additionally, you may read the user reviews because you want to be informed of the pros and cons of the product or service, and you care what other people have to say about it. This is the norm for the modern consumer, it is the standard for any major purchasing decision, and today’s companies are learning to respect this process.

Some businesses have embraced the user review system with open arms, proactively asking customers to rate their experience with a product or service. Just the other day a customer service representative at a local car dealership chased me down, handed me a card containing a list of review sites and asked me to write a review based on my experience at the dealership. While this was something I had never experienced before, I realized it’s not a bad strategy – the better the reviews the dealership gets, the more likely it is that someone will purchase a car or utilize their services. Now most companies understand there’s a line between asking a customer to rate their product or service and demanding the customer give a positive review. The businesses that don’t respect this line usually end up in the media spotlight for all the wrong reasons.

Take the Union Street Guest House (USGH) for example. A few years ago when the historic Hudson, NY hotel first appeared on Yelp, it had a handful of four and five star ratings, making it a desirable location for people looking to stay in the area. But when one or two bad reviews appeared, they took drastic measures in an attempt to keep their 4+ star rating. It was recently revealed that the USGH incorporated a policy which charged guests $500 for posting a negative review of the hotel. That’s right, if you wrote a negative review about the hotel, for any reason, they would charge you or the host of your event $500. Here’s an excerpt from the policy which has since been removed from their website:

“If you have booked the Inn for a wedding or other type of event anywhere in the region and given us a deposit of any kind for guests to stay at USGH there will be a $500 fine that will be deducted from your deposit for every negative review of USGH placed on any internet site by anyone in your party and/or attending your wedding or event. If you stay here to attend a wedding anywhere in the area and leave us a negative review on any internet site you agree to a $500 fine for each negative review.” Source: via

Unfortunately for USGH, the internet is a big place, and news travels… fast. The story about their ridiculous policy went viral and a look at their Yelp page says it all. The attempt to censor negative feedback has resulted in the once 4+ star hotel, dropping to just 1.5 stars with hundreds of one star reviews (from people who most likely have not even stayed at the hotel, never mind been to Hudson, NY) posted in the last 3 days alone. Talk about a PR nightmare!

While internet ‘trolls’ have clearly jumped on this bandwagon, it’s important to highlight some lessons that can be learned from Union Street Guest House’s mistake:

  • First, respecting your customers is a must. Manipulating user reviews or comments whether it be through charging them a fee or otherwise is wrong and just bad business. If you believe your product or service deserves a high rating or good review then put the effort into making it that way in the first place.
  • Secondly, you MUST be aware of the power of the internet. It is one of the world’s greatest resources and weapons at the same time, and as USGH found out, it makes or breaks companies.
  • Lastly, you should have a response plan in place for when something like this happens. Regardless of whether or not you have a group of savvy PR professionals at your beck and call or just an intern who updates your social media page, you need to be ready for when “it” goes down.

The USGH story should serve as a reminder to businesses and public relations professionals everywhere; the user review can dictate whether a company survives, thrives or dies.