By now, even if you don’t live in Chicago, you’ve probably heard of Horizon Realty.  That’s because they recently decided to sue one of their tenants over what they considered to be a libelous message posted to Twitter — specifically:

The $50,000 tweet

When news of this lawsuit hit the web, many were astounded by Horizon Realty’s seemingly over-the-top behavior — especially considering the Tweeter in question (Amanda Bonnen) only had 20 followers at the time of the tweet.  (Perhaps even more mind-boggling was Horizon Realty’s response to the public outrage, including the presumed joke, “We’re a sue first, ask questions later kind of organization.”)

While the lawsuit itself — and the web firestorm that surrounds it — will find its own conclusion, let’s not miss the opportunity to find several lessons in this fiasco.

  1. What you say on Twitter is public. (Even if you don’t think it is.)  That goes not only for what YOU say, but what’s said ABOUT you.
  2. The days of being a “sue first, ask questions later” organization may soon be over. Spurious lawsuits only work as scare tactics when the defendant is isolated from legal resources, support and information — none of which is true in this digitally connected age.
  3. The public is quick to defend the underdog. Within hours of this story first being tweeted, it was among the top Trending Topics on Twitter.  (Note to corporations: you are almost never the underdog.)
  4. The public rarely has all the facts. In this case, Horizon contends that Bonnen had filed a class action lawsuit against them on June 24th regarding the alleged mold issue. If Horizon’s portrayal of Bonnen as a tenant seeking to exploit the system for financial gain turns out to be true, their behavior may not only be understandable but forgivable.
  5. Your reputation is ALWAYS in the hands of others. Horizon contends it needed to file its suit against Bonnen because it has a reputation to defend (against her allegations of mold), but they failed to assess the negative impact this lawsuit could have on their reputation in the eyes of potential customers.  Regardless of the facts in the case, the web-going public’s perception is that Horizon Realty is a reactionary and overly-litigious company — not an impression likely to bring in new tenants by the truckload.

All said, there’s still one other question we won’t be able to answer quite yet: namely, how *does* a wave of negative online publicity affect a company? Horizon Realty isn’t Domino’s, and their PR crises aren’t parallel, but the web’s reaction to them has been similar. Whether Horizon’s clientele pays attention to Twitter is something only time (and Horizon Realty’s bottom line) will tell.