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Horizon Realty and the tweet read 'round the world: the day it announced its $50,000 libel suit against a former renter's tweet, Horizon Realty became one of the top 10 most discussed topics on Twitter for all the wrong reasons. Here's how to avoid the same fate.

The Horizon Realty v. Amanda Bonnen lawsuit was an interesting story that caught the attention of the apartment industry and mainstream media in late July. Chicago-based property management firm Horizon Realty filed a $50,000 libel suit against former resident Bonnen on July 28 for the following tweet (made May 12 on her Twitter account): "Who said sleeping in a moldy apartment was bad for you? Horizon realty thinks it's okay."

At the time of her post. Bonnen's Twitter account had approximately 20 followers, so it initially was not the "tweet heard 'round the world." as has been described since. Horizon made no attempt to contact Bonnen prior to filing the suit, even though her contact information was available to them.

Visit http://tinyurl.com/ny5dsv to read the verified complaint from the Circuit Court of Cook County, Ill.

Although the initial reach of the tweet was limited to Bonnen's 20 followers and anyone who happened to search for her public tweet, news of Horizon Realty's response to sue her was hundreds of times greater. Shortly after news of the lawsuit was announced through a Chicago legal blog, the term "Horizon Realty" became a trending topic--one of the top 10 most tweeted terms--on Twitter, where it remained for the rest of the day.

Tweeters Weigh In

People who had no connection to Horizon Realty, Bonnen or the apartment industry began to voice opinions. Most favored Bonnen. But if filing a lawsuit over a tweet wasn't bad enough, Horizon Realty executive Jeff Michaels' statement to the media really pushed people over the edge. When questioned by a Chicago Sun-Times reporter about the suit, Michaels said. "We're a sue-first, ask-questions-later kind of an organization."

Tweeters. renters, bloggers and seemingly everyone else soon wanted to weigh in and the blogosphere went into attack mode. Horizon's image suffered as it became the butt of jokes regarding their statement.

Commentary ranged from the ridiculous to some who seriously questioned Horizon's ability to survive as a property management firm.

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[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

As the story garnered coverage worldwide, Horizon Realty issued a press release, providing its side of the story. In it, Horizon revealed that Bonnen previously had filed a class-action lawsuit against Horizon about collecting security deposit interest (which Illinois landlords are required to pay) and mandated porch safety disclosures. Its search for her tweet, Horizon insisted, was part of its due diligence in prepping for its case against Bonnen.

The bottom line from the press release: The Horizon-issued lawsuit will not be dropped, the company will issue no apology and the debate will continue to be played out in the media.

Lessons Learned

This story must be examined more closely by the apartment industry for three main reasons:

1. Horizon sued a former resident for what it considered to be a libelous remark about mold in her apartment.

Mold is a serious issue; it can hurt a building's reputation and Horizon felt it had every right to defend itself against Bonnen's remarks. Additionally, because Bonnen's remarks were based on fact (she alleged the "fact" that Horizon supposedly has mold) and not opinion, it appears that Horizon's suit has merit.

Yes, every company has the right to defend itself. But shouldn't Horizon have tried to contact Bonnen prior to filing its lawsuit? Even without the media uproar, the answer to this question is, "Yes." Filing the lawsuit without first contacting the former resident smacks of retaliation and it makes Horizon look like the big, bad management company. Let's face it: The term "landlord" doesn't exactly create warm-and-fuzzy images with most people these days anyway. This tactic had potential for disaster from the start, and it didn't disappoint.

2. Should Horizon dismiss the suit?

Yes, as far as crisis public-relations goes, the dismissal of the suit after the story broke would have assuaged the media damage and pushed the story back to page 2. Instead, by issuing what many construed to be an arrogant press release, Horizon added fuel to the fire and kept the story aflame. A week later, it was still getting burned because the media continued discussing the event. (Bonnen's Twitter account was closed hours after the flurry of activity for reasons not reported.) For Horizon, dropping the suit, meeting with Bonnen and coming to an amenable solution would have mitigated the damage to its reputation.

3. What does this teach the apartment industry about social media?

This may be a case of simple misunderstanding about using the social Web, but to the outside world, it is representative of the industry to date. While regurgitating what Internet news blogs Mashable and TechCrunch have said or will say about this might not be appropriate, this much can be learned from this situation:

a. Although extreme, this is an example of our industry not being savvy in regard to the social Web.

Many are saying they cannot believe a management group would make such a social media misstep. Though the benefit (or lack thereof) the apartment industry can gain from Horizon's misstep seems obvious, apartment owners are making smaller and less-obvious mistakes. For the most part, the apartment industry's behavior as a whole remains reactionary, non-participatory and generally unengaged. Who is reaching out to renters across social media sites? What apartment homepages foster community or have ratings and reviews? What Internet listings sites host apartment ratings? Who openly communicates or allows open communication with residents on the Web? Aside from a select few, there seems to be modest activity and only from a very few.

Could effective interaction on social media have prevented Horizon Realty's fiasco? Probably not. But had it been engaged in social media, maybe Bonnen and Horizon would have worked out their situation privately.

b. A social Web strategy has not yet been established.

Many companies have specific strategies on how to communicate with consumers in different scenarios across different media. Within the apartment industry, the idea of connecting with a reviewer on ApartmentRatings.com seems awkward and uncomfortable, and apartment companies have a strong hesitation to embrace user-generated content sites. The Horizon example now presents a valuable reminder and an opportunity to re-educate employees, management and the apartment industry about interacting on the social Web. More importantly, it's a reminder to management to create guidelines and a general strategy for interaction with critics, spectators and evangelists.

Still not convinced? The week the lawsuit was made public, more than half of the stories oh Google's first page of results were about this mold controversy. As one blog commenter wisely posted, "Twitter is fleeting; Google is forever."

Lisa Trosien is a Multifamily Educator and Consultant. Her Web site is www ApartmentExpert.com, and she can be reached at lisa@apartmentexpert.com or 630/898-8898. Eric Wu is Co-Founder of RentWiki.com. He can be reached at eric@rentwiki.com or 415/640-4970.
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Author:Trosien, Lisa; Wu, Eric
Publication:Units
Date:Sep 1, 2009
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