Earlier this week, Best Burger in Oman almost did a “Benihana“, by threatening to sue a blogger for writing a somewhat negative review of their restaurant.

But what Best Burger didn’t know was that the blogger it was planning to sue is also a legal researcher by profession. Luckily for both parties in the end, the restaurant decided to do the right thing by withdrawing legal action, and thinking constructively about how the menu could be improved.   

However, many companies in the Middle East still fail to recognise the tremendous opportunities borne out of negative feedback, and how it can be used to improve the business and build stronger long-term customer relationships.

Last week, Econsultancy published a new report on the State of Digital marketing in MENA, which found that although many companies (56%) are using third-party sites, such as Facebook and Twitter for marketing, fewer (23%) are employing social media tactics on their own websites, such as ratings and reviews, blogs and forums.

Speaking to marketers at Digital Cream Dubai last week, it’s clear that laws regarding defamation, as well as the fear of legal action, are preventing some companies from investing in social media tactics on their own websites.

As Suzanne Locke, Digital Development Director of Emap Middle East noted: “Forums and blogs are a relatively easy way of generating pages of SEO-rich – and Arabic-language content, but I suspect few companies are willing to invest the internal resource needed for pre-moderation, which is imperative in this region because of media laws and political and religious sensitivities.”

Although the laws regarding defamation online may not change in the immediate future, one way to overcome these issues is to educate companies about the value of negative feedback, and to help them understand how they can think of reviews as an opportunity, in order to discourage them from taking legal action against bloggers.

It’s important for companies to understand that to an extent, the internet is empowering consumers to say what they want, so negative feedback and bad reviews are not going away any time soon. A fresh approach and change of mindset are needed, so that companies embrace bad reviews, take the feedback on board, and effectively use the insights to improve products and services.

It’s already been well established that the cost of acquiring a new customer is significantly higher than retaining existing customers, so it makes sense for companies to have a retention strategy in place. Social media provides brands with the opportunity to immediately respond and react to negative feedback. Studies have shown that swift resolution results in higher customer satisfaction, and an increase in long-term loyalty and lifetime customer value.

In the case of Best Burger, many customers in Oman who otherwise may not have heard of the company will suddenly become aware of the brand, both as a result of media coverage and through social media channels.

By reacting positively, Best Burger has effectively shielded itself from further negative sentiment, extensive media coverage and severe reputational damage, something that Benihana Kuwait could certainly learn from. According to the latest posts by Mark Makhoul on his blog, TwoFortyEightAM, it appears that Benihana Kuwait are still going ahead with the lawsuit.

For companies, writers and bloggers operating in the Middle East and North Africa, it’s crucially important to understand the specific legal aspects of what constitutes defamation in each country in MENA. I caught up with Riyadh Al Balushi, the writer of the original review, to find out a little more about the key differences between the UK and Oman regarding the legality of negative feedback online.

What are the main differences between the UK and Omani law regarding defamation on the internet? 

The major differences between defamation in Oman and the UK are with its core concept and not specifically about the internet. In Oman, defamation is a criminal offence stipulated in the criminal law, while in the UK defamation is a civil matter that does not necessarily have any criminal aspect associated with it.

Being a crime in Oman, defamation is potentially a much more serious problem here than in the UK. In addition to this, the law in the UK provides for very clear defences against defamation, such as truth, while in Oman there is no clear exception to the offence in the law.

Could Best Burger actually have sued you or taken you to court for a negative review?

I think that Best Burger could have actually initiated legal action on the basis that my post could potentially have defamatory content, but I think that it is very unlikely for the court to hold that there is in fact any offending material.

What do bloggers in Oman need to be aware of when writing reviews or criticising brands? 

I think this advice has universal application. Bloggers must make sure not to make false claims about the quality or the condition of any brand and must not make accusations that they cannot back up. It is your right to state your opinion about what you thought of the service, but this should not extend to insulting the actual people who own the product or service being reviewed.

Bloggers should also be careful about the content written on their blog. If they realise that a comment on their blog is clearly making a false accusation or is a direct insult towards a specific person that could constitute an offence under any law, then they should take swift action in denouncing that comment or deleting it completely from their blog if they want to ensure that they will not be held liable for content that was directly under their control.

For companies looking at the MENA region more broadly, are there major differences in laws regarding what constitutes defamation across the region?

Each one of the countries in the MENA region has its own laws and legal system, so it is likely that what constitutes defamation in each one of these countries would differ, especially when it comes to liability of content published on the internet as this remains as a new matter for most countries in the region.

I would suggest for companies to look at the law in each country to determine what constitutes defamation for that specific place.

As a blogger and restaurant critic, how do you think companies should react to negative feedback and what can they do about it? 

It is impossible for companies to stop what people say about them on the internet. They have to learn to listen to it and steer it in a manner beneficial to them.

An attempt to threaten a blogger can only harm the reputation of the company more than anything else and contributes in spreading the negative feedback to a bigger scale. Companies need to start a dialogue with bloggers in order to be liked and respected online.

Image credit: barron on Flickr