User-driven business review services like Yelp and TripAdvisor help millions of people find the right restaurant, doctor, hotel and more. But some businesses, hoping to avoid negative reviews, began hiding non-disparagement clauses in their terms and services agreements. These hidden terms purported to restrict customers from leaving unfavorable reviews, exposing them to a potential lawsuit if they chose to do so. This questionable legal tactic scared off some consumers core to the success of these sites. We counseled the companies’ public policy and government affairs teams on this fundamental First Amendment issue.
Non-disparagement—or gag—clauses do not just hurt consumer review sites. They hurt all consumers who cannot see the honest reviews of fellow users. We went to work on a crafting and executing a crisis communications plan to expose the consequences of these unfair legal practices. By building a robust coalition of advocates and sharing consumers’ actual horror stories, we were able to show policymakers and the press just how serious an impediment to Free Speech these clauses are.
We crafted compelling fact sheets to show policymakers and media how these clauses hurt consumers, secured media coverage for victims targeted with lawsuits, placed Op-Eds in national and Beltway publications and used our deep network to build a diverse coalition of advocates, representing viewpoints from both sides of the aisle, to speak out.
Thanks to our robust media strategy, we saw coverage in The Washington Post, NPR, Christian Science Monitor, The Hill, Quartz, Salon, Engadget and Buzzfeed, among others. And all of this culminated into the passage of the Consumer Review Fairness Act, a bill that outlaws non-disparagement clauses signed into law by President Obama in 2016.