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Consumer rights: Think before firing off a social media complaint

Reputation managers are protecting firms who are unfairly reviewed, so if you feel badly treated give companies a chance to put things right

'Stop the damage to your reputation. Prevent lies, rumours..." – just one of many online ads from firms happy to help others protect their most important asset: a good reputation.

Many of us turn to the internet before booking a restaurant or a holiday, buying from a company we haven't used before, or in search of the best possible deal. Consumers have less to spend so we're fussier about who we buy from. We base decisions on the comments of people, like us, about how good or bad their experiences were.

Negative posts on Twitter, Facebook or blogs make us hesitate and look elsewhere. We want to deal with reputable firms and the internet is a great forum for finding recommendations. If we do buy, we in turn are invited to tell other browsers about our experiences.

So firms are watching what's being said about them on social media. And they're very keen to protect their names. As a result there's been a proliferation of reputation management companies waiting to pounce on us if our comments could be construed as critical or unfair.

More and more consumers are reporting that they've been asked to change or withdraw negative remarks and have even been threatened with legal action for damaging a firm's reputation and business. So if the food has left you fuming or you're disgusted by the service, think carefully before you let rip with the mouse. What you say must be true and you should be able to prove it. Just as in good old-fashioned print, lies and exaggerations which can damage reputations can land you in hot water.

Any organisation, no matter how good, can have an off day. The true measure of a reputable company isn't that they never get things wrong but that they act quickly and decisively to rectify the matter so they should be given a chance to put things right. Even though it's easy to reach for the keyboard it's best to pursue your complaint in a reasonable fashion. Ask to talk to someone who can deal with the problem. Discuss it without exaggerating and present any evidence such as photos or witness accounts.

Be clear about what you will accept by way of apology but be reasonable in your demands and polite. If the problem isn't resolved at first attempt, ask for the details of a person higher up the chain and write to them. Keep copies of all letters or emails. It always pays to check out your consumer rights with local advice agencies or through Consumer Direct (08454 040506) especially if you feel you're entitled to more than just an apology and your money back.

When you've checked your legal position explain it to the company. If you don't get satisfaction you can make a claim through the courts. Most firms won't want that and will settle. But if they don't, remember that both sides will have a chance to present their case in court and a judge may not agree with your arguments. Be willing to negotiate. If the problem is a bigger one, and you've been injured for example, get legal advice before accepting any offer of a settlement.

Of course there are bad companies out there. If you do fall foul of one, making a claim could mean throwing good money after bad. It may be easier and cheaper to cut your losses and run. But if you have a bad experience and want to help others to avoid that same mistake by spreading the word, make sure you can prove what you say before you press send.

Q. I've been managing my debts for the past two years. I cleared arrears on rent, council tax and bills, and set up payments for loans and cards. But I'm told my work contract won't be renewed and I won't get a redundancy payment. I know I won't get much help apart from rent and council tax. I have no savings because of the repayments and I can't see a way to keep on paying the amounts agreed unless I get another job straight away. The adviser did suggest last time that I could go bankrupt but I didn't like that idea. Is it a good option?

FC, Brighton

A. Go back to the adviser or the agency. It may be possible to renegotiate reduced payments. You must be aware of the consequences of bankruptcy. You're renting so you don't have a home to lose but check the tenancy agreement in case it says anything about bankruptcy. If you are bankrupt you could still be asked to pay something towards the debts for three years. You should be discharged from bankruptcy in 12 months. From then it's back to business as usual. Applying to make yourself bankrupt costs £700.