The tomato paste libel case

I've been doing a lot of research, thinking and writing about online comments for a Nov. 5 webinar on comment management for news sites for the Poynter Institute and APME.

So the story about a libel suit against the owner of a pizza restaurant just blocks from my home attracted my attention.

In what some consider an unusual and risky business move, a marketing firm is suing its former client for $2 million over comments he is said to have made on Facebook and Twitter.

Regardless of the legal merits of the case, if the intent was to stifle negative "publicity" about the marketing firm's business practices; it failed miserably.

The comments were originally made in relative obscurity even through they appeared on public networks. Since the suit, the news story on knoxnews has been one of the site's top read and most emailed stories of the past several days. And the case is generating attention worldwide.

Pizza Kitchen story(This is a screen shot of the "most emailed" list on the knoxnews.com Web site on Oct. 6, 2009.)

Note that attorneys for the marketing company didn't sue Facebook or Twitter where the comments appeared; they sued the commenter.

Facebook and Twitter just provide the network or platform for the comments. Comments at the bottom of articles on news Web sites are similar to Facebook and Twitter comments in that the site is just providing the means for communication.

Online sites from individual blogs to mighty Google, and Internet service providers like Comcast and AT&T rely on provisions in a 13-year-old law for protection against suits regarding user comments. In one of those twists of political sausage making, the law, the Communications Decency Act of 1996, was originally aimed at combating porn and obscene language.

The 15 minutes of fame for the The Pizza Kitchen libel case has resulted in worldwide attention as much over the business strategy of suing clients as over the legal merits of the libel claims. And on the Internet, that 15 minutes of fame gets replayed with every new search engine query.

Palo Alto, Calif., marketing and public relations blogger Steve Farnsworth (@TheRealPRMan on Twitter) is holding a chat on Twitter using the hash tag #SM4B on Wednesday at noon (EST).

Knoxville marketing and social media consultant Mark Schaefer, who has blogged about the case, is his guest.

Here is some of the react being generated by the case.

Mark Schaefer:

First, is it ever really a good idea to sue your customer?  Pizza Kitchen has one store and 247 followers on Twitter.  Even if the owner was really, really difficult, you just ... don't ... sue ... customers over something liks this.   Do you??
Frank Reed writing in WebProNews:

I think these folks in Knoxville must be upset with the play of the University of Tennessee's football team or something because this is out of hand. Social media never plays well when it becomes social mudslinging. You can look at the PDF of the court papers filed by Lowe and Tritt at the Knox news site and decide for yourself if this is as stupid (or overcooked) as it looks.
Australian blogger Laurel Papworth:

How to bake a social media problem: Take one serve of Self-publishing throw in 2 spoons of strong emotion stir with some passionate about business bake with a leadership role and then serve with strong personality.  Warning: Can get HOT!
TheFounder on the Tribble Ad Agency blog

It may not be apparent now, but one day in the history books you might find this story where an advertising agency sued their client, because their client seemed to be able to get a message out using social media more efficiently than the ad agency could counter with traditional means.