Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Twitter Lawsuit: PRs Job Just Got Harder

The best crisis communications case studies have several layers. And by several layers I mean they are gifts that keep on giving. Let's go to Chicago, where Horizon Realty Group is suing former tenant Amanda Bonnen for a tweet she posted in May. Here's the tweet:

Seems like a big company with a thin skin picking on a defenseless tenant. A classic David & Goliath story. Read the Twitter Lawsuit. (pdf)

It gets better. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, Jeffrey Michael, whose family runs Horizon, said the company never asked Bonnen to take down the tweet:
"We're a 'sue first, ask questions later' kind of an organization."
Clearly, Mr. Michael didn't get the "Humor rarely works in media interviews" memo.

In response to the shitstorm unleashed by their lawsuit and off-handed remark, Horizon issued a statement (clearly not drafted by but attributed to Mr. Michael) that clarified the remarks:
"I would first like to take this opportunity to apologize for tongue in cheek comments that were made previously regarding our approach to litigation. This statement is not in line with our philosophy towards property management and was taken out of context."
Out of context how? Everyone who misspeaks says they were taken out of context. Please.

If you keep reading the statement, you learn that Ms. Bonnen had sued Horizon (before the tweet) for violating Chicago's Residential Landlord Tenant Ordinance.

So it's not just a big company with a thin skin suing a defenseless tenant for saying something bad about them. It's a big company using fancy lawyer tricks to intimidate a litigant. Perfect.

Did Horizon get communications advice from the Governor of South Carolina? Someone needs to tell Mr. Michael and his lawyers to STOP SPEAKING. Why do they seem stunned that people are judging them based on how they communicate (both in statements to the press and in their court filings)?

I've never heard of Horizon before and I used to live in Chicago. Based on everything I've read (and I've read everything except Ms. Bonnen's lawsuit), my sense is that this probably how they manage their properties. Are they going to sue me now?

It's true that Horizon has every right to pursue its claims in court. It's also true that just because Horizon can sue the lady doesn't mean they should.

Now I have to find a way to explain to my to my Social Media clients that this won't happen to them. So I would like to send a big shout out Horizon and their lawyers:

Thanks for your useless lawsuit; you've just made my job harder.

Bill Salvin

Hat Tip to Marian Wang who covered this story for the Chicago Bar-Tender Blog


  1. We are a cleantech/green/CSR specialized PR firm. This week we received an attorney generated inquiry as to our interest in helping them support a green counter suit against a Fortune 100 company. They think the PR will shorten the larger company's appetite for a public legal fight. The winds they are a changing for PR.

  2. The winds are changing in many ways, John. PR will have to stay nimble in the new era. Thanks for reading.

  3. This strikes me as a typical case of a company valuing legal advice over PR advice. In too many companies, the communications person is further down the food chain than the legal person, and too many lawyers approach these things with blinders on, totally oblivious to the PR damage there legal shananagans can cause. Methinks that's the case here.