What the Horizon Realty Fail Can Teach You About Social Media

What the Horizon Realty Fail Can Teach You About Social Media

Reader Comments (100)

  1. So gross of Horizon Realty Group. No telling how much money this is going to cost them. I’m curious though. What the hell did they think suing the lady would accomplish? Incredible.

    • This could’ve been such a simple solution that could’ve have brought the company some positive media, if they just had listened and talked to the tenant and fix the problem.

      I don’t think someone would just post a comment like that for no reason or intent behind it, besides expressing their frustration.

      If they would have taken the opposite approach and fixed it, their story could have been ” WOW Horizon is awesome, within a few hours of me posting on twitter, they came and got the problem fixed. Thank you Horizon that’s why I choose you”

      Okay maybe that’s too much, but you get the point.

      Did you see the story about…It’s better if you read it. Too long for me to tell it here. http://shankman.com/the-best-customer-service-story-ever-told-starring-mortons-steakhouse/

  2. “His company says they can prove there wasn’t any mold in Bonnen’s apartment, and they couldn’t let Bonnen bad-mouth them.”

    The above sounds like an attempt to justify a truly stupid business move. Now… I want to hear the company’s justification for not giving a warning first. That should be interesting.

  3. What he told the Sun Times when asked that very question was “we’re a sue first, ask questions later kind of organization.” I’m guessing he now wishes he hadn’t said that.

  4. I think it’s the “sue first, ask questions later” aspect of the case that’s really behind the popularity of this story. An ordinary tenant griping about her building’s management company isn’t that big a deal, even in the city where they both live. “United Breaks Guitars” spread like wildfire long before United made any official response because (1) it was brilliant and (2) it tapped into a LOT of simmering resentment.

    Most people don’t even know who Horizon Realty IS, really, even with all this attention, and they aren’t “connecting its brand with callous disregard for its tenants.” They’re connecting the brand with the “sue first, ask questions later” attitude.

  5. For the Horizon group, serves them right. A $50,000 lawsuit for a Twitter account with 20 followers? That’s just evil.

    I do think many people (companies especially) have learned their lesson by now.

  6. My favorite paragraph from what you’ve said above is:

    “If you want to influence the conversation, you’ve actually got to get into the conversation. Respectfully. Meaningfully. Just because that’s a social media cliché doesn’t mean you get to ignore it and hope it goes away.”

    Wow. That’s really powerful advice. I think that should be the opening paragraph for any product anyone is selling about anything Web 2.0.

    I hadn’t heard about this. Thanks for posting about it.



  7. This is indeed a FAIL of epic proportions. While it’s completely disheartening and pathetic that a big realty company would sue someone w/ less than 20 followers for a little comment, it’s great to see the wildfire justice that has been dealt right back at them.

    If you do a search on twitter for “company_name sucks”, you will see a ton of people who just want to vent. Maybe they dropped a call, or their car battery died, or had a long line at the grocery store. If they happen to be part of the twitterverse, they may tweet to their 17 Twitter followers that “Verizon/Ford/Walmart sucks” or something. Would anyone actually think, “Wow, Johnny said there was a long line at WalMart and that they suck. Even though that’s the closest grocery store, I am no longer going to go there”. Hell No they wouldn’t. Not because we don’t like Johnny or don’t trust his opinion, but because we know, he’s just venting.

    There are SO many better ways to use Twitter to handle customers, both positive and negative… Twitter presents a wonderful opportunity for companies to have a voice amongst the people, a “one of us” sort of person who is there to help. They could have just left it alone, or even better, sent her a tweet in response, publicly asking her how they can fix it, or at least saying that apologizing and that they would do their best.

    There was no reason to get so damn PR conscious about her post… until now. They did issue a press release but in reality, that just made them look like the grade school bully forced to apologize for beating up the little scrawny kid. Sure she posted on tweet, one comment, but it was the way they handled it that made this all blow up.

  8. Well, if I were horizon, i would have contacted bonnen and apologized if there was mold. And if horizon had in fact been defamed at all by the tweet, They should have issued a statement through the press that was honest and saying that they will fix whatever problems with mold.

    People have the right to express their opinions about companies, public or not. Especially if it were true, which I believe it was. Why else would horizon get on the defensive so fast?

    They are looking ever worse by the way they are handling all this. poor saps. Kiss my butt horizon.

  9. Thing is, I think we’re going to see a lot more of this before things really change. Trad business (and realty is a classic) will need to be dragged kicking and screaming into the new world of customer engagement and transparency.

    The flipside of this is that users also need to realise that social media is a public forum and libel is a genuine risk. Say, if I tweeted about how Brian Clark committed some terrible copywriting offence and didn’t respond to requests to take it down. Sure, this case certainly shouldn’t have ended in litigation, but this will happen and it won’t always be unreasonable for the company or complainant to do so.

    We’re going to see Twitter tested in court and it isn’t necessarily all going to be our way

  10. That’s actually a stupid social media strategy mistake. If that tweet was ignored, it wouldn’t have come to such a negative PR buzz.
    But then again, when a company’s PR department is pushed to do online communication without having any specialists, those are the results.

  11. Excellent article.. This whole story, really shows you the power of social media, and why companies need to understand that the old rules have changed and that they are now in a new era…

    Simple issues that once could be dealt with, now far too often find themselves trending on Twitter, with the resultant loss of brand image, that has taken years to build up…..

    Brands need to wake up, and start listening before shouting and making threats.


  12. Certainly not wise on their parts whatsoever. It will be interesting to see just who backs down in this case and turns it to their advantage. It could be a tremendously positive PR event if they said, hey, we went about things the wrong way…..

  13. This is just plain and gross misconduct, so grave, that it requires complete reprehension. This is not the right way to do legit business at all.

  14. You forgot some points in your article about the reason why this story got so huge.

    It got so big because of this words of wisdom : “We’re a sue first, ask questions later kind of an organization.” Said by Horizon Realty’s Jeffrey Michael.

    And also because it wasn’t mentionned in any early news article about this story that Bonnen’s was alreay suing Horizon Realty before making her comment on Twitter. Wich means Jeffrey Michael may not have clarified this with journalist. This was a huge PR mistake wich cost them a lot.

    Not just because social media users doesn’t read all the facts carefully before flaming, in fact at the beginning all the facts wasn’t even existing.

  15. So well said, I feel like the only thing I can say is, ‘Bravo!’. Although Michaels insists his ‘sue first’ comment was taken out of context (how does one take a comment like that out of context I wonder) it still shows that you must be aware of your brand 24/7.

    As an industry expert in multifamily, I can tell you that virtually no one prefers to lease an apartment from a company whose ‘off the cuff remark’ (their words, not mine) is “sue first, ask questions later”. At best, they’ll struggle. At worst, they’ll have to do a name change and completely rebrand. I think the effects from this will resonate in the Chicago apartment market for a long time to come as they are strictly a local player in the real estate scene and this story will continue to play out as long as the lawsuits are continuing.

  16. I am amazed at how many people find me on Twitter. A little spark can become a roaring fire in this Internet world.

  17. Great post! I especially love this part:

    “You don’t get to play by the old rules any more, and it doesn’t matter what business you’re in. You don’t get the old privilege of anonymity. You don’t get to bury your story on page 47.

    “There is no more page 47. Every story is somebody’s page 1.

    “As a matter of fact, it isn’t your story any more. It belongs to everyone, and they’ll do what they please with it.”

    And it is ultimately much better for companies and brands to engage in the conversation/story rather than rail against it (or file a lawsuit!).

  18. Hilariously true, Sonia. It serves them right for trying to sue someone over a remark. What happened to freedom of speech? Hello! 21st Century!

    I think I fully realize now the frightening wildfire-like powers of Twitter.

  19. Depending on the outcome of this case maybe more businesses will drop litigation as a tool and turn towards customer satisfaction. The beauty of the Internet is empowerment by transparency – as you stated by your Meatball Sundae reference – the old rules no longer apply!

  20. There are some facts that support Horizon but don’t help them at all, like her original lawsuit and the fact that they’ve apparently already checked out the mold. Their part of the fail was in filing a lawsuit over a grumpy tweet, and for their subsequent handling of it.

    It’s not that they don’t have a side of the story. It’s the way they chose to handle telling it.

    @Marcela, yeah, I had the same reaction.

    @Kimota, I totally agree. There are lessons to be learned from both sides, and we need to realize that in another scenario, behaving as the tenant did could get us in significant hot water.

  21. Have to recap what everyone else is saying. This is a PR fail of epic proportions, regardless of whether she was suing them first or not. It IS David v. Goliath. That tweet would have gone completely unnoticed, without any doubt (20 followers!) but they had to come in and crack that can of worms right open without thinking first. Horizon’s biggest mistakes in this are: 1) Not asking her to remove it first, and 2) this whole “sue first, ask later” mentality. There are scathing reviews of the company online (just google them) and they go after a tiny little tweet that WAS a pin in a haystack….until now.

    Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.

    Hopefully other companies will learn from this that the power of social media is remarkable. This IS a new world. Time to throw away the old ways and thoughts.

    Excellent article, by the way.

  22. Great article Sonia, love the message. As I just wrote, this sordid mess goes well beyond Twitter. Twitter can be fleeting, Google never forgets.

    Looking forward to hearing your keynote at the Inman News Bloggers Connect event next week!

  23. I appreciate your perspective on this Sonia. I especially like your reference towards the end about people needing to get in the conversation, respectfully because anonymity doesn’t exist anymore.

    I love how social media has evened out the playing field.

  24. Excellent article! Well done & very well written. In these times no one should underestimated or overlook the power of social media. It is pure business folly to do so. Glad you brought this to light with such a juicy example! :))

  25. What worries me over this case is not only that they are suing someone over a tweet (comment) but how did they come across this information? If ABonnen only had 20 followers, was Horizon Realty one of them? No.

    My fear is that they were squatting on her account waiting for something to come up that they can use against her in reaction to being sued by her in the first place, a tit-for-tat if you will.

    The record of her tweets that accompanied the complaint show that this was such a small detail of her life and the only one of her tweets (shown) that even mention Horizon Realty.

    I am not a lawyer so I am sure I’m missing something here but how can she be sued anyway. Does this mean I can be sued for a comment I leave on any forum where I complain about the service of a company? If that’s the case, we are in a lot of trouble!!

  26. But the next company may not be as inept as Horizon. Be careful out there, folks. It may be the 21st century, but as Sonia correctly points out, anything you say is Page 1.

  27. Although I think Horizon acted like idiots (sounds like both sides were irrational). But to say that the 20 followers made this happen sounds premature. Sounds like the lawsuit got attention and was blasted on mainstream media and snowballed from there. How did the mainstream media hear about the suit. if it was via twitter then yes, I guess they made it happen. No question that twitter can have it’s reach but I think the lesson here is also that excess stupidity also rises to the top and finds it’s way into the mainstream media.

  28. I was just tweeting about this case with a fellow blogger when I saw this. You make a really good point. We were debating where communications law falls when it comes to the things posted on twitter – or on any other social media medium. Are they going to start policing twitter? Fascinating topic. Personally I think the company should have asked her to remove the remark (IF it was untrue) and then started a conversation with the public about policy and their good name. It would have served them better to (as you say) play by the new rules! Great post.

  29. @Kristina …Or they should have just ignored it. Would we be having this conversation if they ignored it? We would have never heard about it.

    I maintain that they were using this incident in retaliation for them being sued by their tenant. Too many things point to that. She had 20 follwers, how would Horizon have come across that tweet if they weren’t looking for something? It backfired on them big time.

    That would also seem to explain their cavalier comment about being a sue first, ask questions later kind of organization. Think about it..

  30. @Sean “My fear is that they were squatting on her account waiting for something to come up that they can use against her” and “Does this mean I can be sued for a comment I leave on any forum where I complain about the service of a company”

    If you are suing me for something, you can be sure I will track everything you are saying about Me and retain this information against you. If you attack me, you can’t expect me not to fire back, even if in court it has no value.

    That said, I would rather use this information in very better way than Horizon Realty Group has. I would make sure not to make stupid lawsuits or comments. It wouldn’t fireback at me … or the less possible.

    But I would monitor everything you may do or say in order to protect me the best I can.

  31. I had a friend, a lawyer, you had offices in a building in which Kenny Rogers chicken moved in downstairs and made a facade that looked like his law offices were part of the restaurant. They shined lights into his office. He asked them to remove the lights, and they said no, so he put a sign in the window that said, “bad chicken” and Kenny Rogers Chicken sued him for millions. He defended himself on free speech rights, got the case thrown out, and it was picked up by Court TV and then later was worked into a Seinfeld episode.

  32. Business should treat Web 2.0 like a game of chess. Each move should take place only after considering numerous consequences that may follow.

    It may be your move and you may be able (and feel justified) to take down a pesky pawn, but that pawn has bishops and queens ready to counter you, and fans with bullhorns in the stands ready to boo you.

    In this 2.0 game, the winner isn’t the one that knocks down his opponent’s last piece; the winner is the person that can play the game in such a way that creates a favorable story about them that spreads beyond the confines of the board.

    Just think what would have happened if Horizon Realty instead helped Amanda Bonnen qualify for her 1st home mortgage.

    Headlines would have read:
    “From Mold to Gold. How Horizon Realty Turned a Rent-Moaner into a Home-Owner”

  33. My favorite quote from the original article was when Horizon said “we’re a sue first ask questions later kind of company.”

  34. My guess is that Horizon has a Google alert set for its name. Most companies do. Tweets are indexed by Google (which for some reason many Twitter users don’t seem to know).

    @pm makes a good point as well, once a company has been sued, it seems prudent to keep watch for what that person is saying. But then a company needs to be wise about how it handles the information that it gets.

    @Steve, you’re right, it was picked up by mainstream media (the Sun Times) and then picked up from there by mainstream blogs. I can’t even remember who I first saw tweet it. As far as I know, her actual followers didn’t do anything at all to spread the tweet. Without the lawsuit, it seems unlikely the tweet would have gone past those 20.

    Kvetchy tweets are unremarkable. $50K lawsuits over single kvetchy tweets are remarkable.

    In many ways, this isn’t a social media story at all. It’s a PR story. But social media allowed the PR problem to spread much faster and wider than traditional media would have. I would imagine that at least some mainstream media organizations will pick the story up and spread it further, esp. in Chicago.

  35. I think it was incredibly shortsighted of HR to sue this woman. Even if they do win their case, their own ineptitude in handling the media aspects of this whole debacle has cost them much more than $50,000 in goodwill.

  36. Wow, I’m sure she never would have thought that her in the moment frustrated tweet would cause such a ruckus! Horizon had the perfect chance to make this turn out really well for their company, like the recent happenings at United, but sadly this is turning out much worse for them than the cost of the lawsuit.

  37. A friend and I have been discussing how to deal with negative comments online about his company, their past response was to ignore but now they’re considering doing something different.

    I passed along this post to him, and it really shows what a tricky issue this is. Ignoring would have certainly been better than the lawsuit, and no one would have seen it. But I think engaging with this person on twitter would have had an even better outcome. (Followed up by an actual human-to-human phone call.)

  38. It really is tricky, and it’s made more so by the previous law suit. But, well, things get tricky in business sometimes. It’s how we handle ourselves in the tricky bits that makes the difference.

  39. I am curious to see how this plays out in court (If Horizon let’s it come to that) Even if they win, it will be small potatoes compared to the damage to their reputation, which in my opninion, they brought on themselves.

  40. This is chilling to say the least. And another example of how the weight of corporate money can be used to curtail even the mildest forms of criticism, nevermind dissent. We profess free speech but most of us really hate it. What will it become if it can only be tolerated when it’s favorable? And what does this story say about professional public relations? What about accountability, credibility, fairness, two-way communication when dealing with customers? The people inside the company who devised this lawsuit should be ashamed.

  41. Everyone should repost the offending tweet to their account:
    “You should just come anyway. Who said sleeping in a moldy apartment was bad for you? Horizon realty thinks it’s okay.”

  42. Bad publicity is a good publicity, If someone wants to sue you for putting down his reputation, then this person is somewhat not good, even if he claim he is good.

    You see, if you are good, actually you doesn’t need to care what other said, what you really need to care is see the problem that is being sue and resolve it and not go sue the person trying to show how dangerous you are…

    because you let others feel you are trying to protect something that you dare not speak…

    Be wise when you want to sue, you might just get yourself into bad reputation and not good reputation.

  43. A very well-written analysis of this situation! Thanks.
    I have been following this story with fascination. Yes, from the beginning I suspected that there might be another side to the story and that Horizon Realty may not be a company full of evil landlords. But despite that, I knew we were all witnesses to a horrible corporate PR blunder. Even if @abonnen was the tenant from hell, Horizon’s behavior was remarkably obtuse. They missed the opportunity to look like heros instead of chumps. And when given the opportunity to explain themselves in the press they fanned the flames with the “sue first” comment. They literally anounced to the world that they are corporate jerks and they like themselves that way.
    All companies have to face the fact that people can and will say anything they want about them at any time and to anyone. And some of what is said may be true and some of it may not be true. But people who complain about a company do so because THEY CARE. They may not express themselves politely or appropriately, but they wouldn’t bother at all if they didn’t care. If Horizon had approached Ms. Bonnen from that perspective, imagine how the different outcome could have been.

  44. Wow! THAT’S the meatiest story I’ve read in a long while.

    And for a long while I’ve been hanging onto a dirty little secret of the Australian nursery & garden industry, wondering how best to bring it to public attention.

    Thank you Sonia, now I know how to go about it. I’ll get the skids on and upgrade my ancient website to Web 2.0 as soon as possible.

  45. Great article, this post feels kind of like those times when my dad told me stories of a long time ago when he was a kid. In the end of those stories there was a meaning, just like this one.

  46. I hope the big companies are beginning to learn that angry or upset customers can no longer be silenced with huge law suits and I hope they aim towards correcting the mis-conceptions of customers in a nice way.

    I also believe people will make their own perception of whats normal and whats just plain outright ridiculous. If they had taken her to court for $500.. this conversation would not exist.

    Seems like the big bad companies are in for more of a fall than the respectable down to earth (media wise) ones.

  47. Excellent post! I still don’t understand why people go through a money route, it amazes me. People still don’t seem to be aware of the impact of the Internet and that fixing things in the wrong way causes more grief in the long run. This story is a prime example of what not to do and how social media can turn a simple situation into something far bigger.

  48. Another example of “Big Dumb Company” attitude at work.

    “Sue first and ask questions later.” – roflmao

    Jay: Thanks for the idea. I love it. 🙂

  49. Oh Dear. If they get their $50k, I really hope that makes up the difference for a huge loss of goodwill, bad publicity, lost business, low staff moral, lost pipeline… etc… etc…

  50. WIN…

    For moving the needle on the discussion about what Social Media is, and is not.

    It IS about starting conversations, and businesses ‘protect their brand’ by engaging their community of customers – happy, sad, and irate – so they can learn, grow, and prosper.

    EXCELLENT point about the number of followers you have on Twitter not being representative of your true reach. It’s also a cautionary tale for casual posters — remember, once your Tweet is indexed, it belongs to the Online ether forever.

  51. Just a couple of points:

    1. She did file suit against them first–for the alleged mold issue. It was as a result of the discovery process for that suit that Horizon said the Tweet was brought to their attention.

    2. Sonia, you said there are “facts” that support Horizon… keep in mind those “facts” are from *their own* press release, claiming they checked out the mold. Those facts will either be proved or not in the lawsuit she first filed.

    3. Everyone should keep in mind that *truth* is a defense to libel. If it turns out there was mold, that she reported it, and that they didn’t act on that, well, she’s got a completely valid defense.

  52. I’m no expert in USA law, nor am I a lawyer, but here in New South Wales, Australia, “truth” alone is no defence to libel unless it is also in the public interest.

  53. Here is a Horizon Staffers Twitter.. she’s ‘Tired of these Tenants at Horizon” and “I can’t stand co-workers sometimes you try to be a team player and help them out them they get a nasty attitude with you.”
    Kinda interesting, it could indicate Amanda had trouble negotiating her mold problem. You know how it is, in any consumer situation, you sometimes face apathetic and difficult people which can really affect communication.

  54. Excellent post on why you need to understand social media – whether you use it or not. Your customers are using it and you need to be part of the discussion in a positive proactive way.

  55. great post on why social media is important for businesses. I am from India where the internet penetration is higher than it ever was. Here people use twitter as a chat room.

    When I started off on twitter, I realized the need for effective utilization of this great tool and also @replied a lot of famous twitterers so that they could understand how they were misusing, rather mistweeting.

    I got a few responses saying almost the same thing: we spend a lot of money in our marketing campaign. Why should we spend so much time as well.

    Thoroughly misunerstanding the phenomenon which could ruin their future, they kept on chugging “how are you tweeps”… god bless them…

  56. Businesses truly NEED these wake-up calls. Power is gradually shifting to the consumer – and it really needs to do that because the power trips so many are on are outrageous.

    Landlords will be among the first to get a clue the hard way. I saw one who commented that he sold his rentals because bad publicity on landlord complaint sites had made renting them nearly impossible.

    In case any believe the current bad economy makes homes easier to rent (as I originally thought), the truth is the tight mortgage market has forced homeowners to rent and increased supply far more than the bad economy has reduced the demand.

    I know a landlord who was born with a silver spoon and has never lived on only her own income. She has no empathy at all and harasses and throws out tenants with many years of paying on time because they ask for a week or two to pay after a lay-off.

    Right now landlords have the power unless the tenants force them to use the laws which cost landlords money but still don’t really help renters. The Internet may change all that but it will take many years before the clueless realize why their business dropped off.

  57. Great read – thanks for the insight. Reminds me of a story I heard from Clay Shirky last week.

    He was scheduled for a flight and kept getting delayed (I believe it was JetBlue). After repeatedly attempting to contact them, he sent out a tweet saying, “what’s up with [airline]? I’m geting no response.”

    Literally, within minutes, Southwest Airlines had responded and offered to help…even offering to comp his flight.

    Who do you think the hero is in this story? There wasn’t a response from the other airline, but they did get some immediate, bad press.

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