Who said there’s no such thing as bad publicity? The recent story about a hotel in Blackpool which fined a guest £100 for writing a bad review on TripAdvisor suggests otherwise. It’s hard to imagine this particular business turning the coverage to their advantage. In fact, their crass approach to bad reviews is likely to have had quite the opposite effect.

Whereas previously their poor reputation was confined to users of TripAdvisor and the like, now the whole world knows what their guests think of them and only a masochist or someone cut off from the media would stay there.

Even among TripAdvisor users, awareness of the hotel has greatly increased. Curiosity and no doubt the desire to send a message to the hotel owners has sent soaring the number of clicks for ‘helpful’ below the bad reviews. And, believe me, they are bad. Out of 256 reviews on TripAdvisor, 150 rated it ‘Terrible’ and a further 24 ranked it ‘Poor’, with phrases like ‘Pure Filth’ and ‘Do Not Stay Here’ catching the eye.

So, when you're getting that much stick, is it such a bad idea to include a clause in your contract that says any guest who gives a bad review will be fined a £100? It will be interesting to see whether Trading Standards or the credit card company against which the fine was charged think it’s legally binding. In the past courts have deemed uninhibited public criticism to be in the public interest.  

Putting that aside, it was never a good idea. There will always be bad reviews and a respectable website like TripAdvisor will remove any that are malicious or factually incorrect. Having said that, I know from personal experience that reviews can be unfair and sites are reluctant to remove them. When I had a shop that traded on Amazon, I can remember at least two that I objected to on the grounds that they were incorrect but which the great retailer wouldn't take down, because I guess they feel their reputation as customer friendly is more important than keeping in with the merchants. Either that or their office in Luxembourg is populated by robots who are not allowed to make sensible decisions. 

There is the option of legal action if you feel a review is plain malicious, false and damaging to your company's reputation but, as I said, courts take a lot of persuading to gag comments about businesses. 

So the best approach is to grin and bear it. Theatres, actors and authors know this only too well. You take the rough with the smooth in the knowledge that good reviews wouldn’t be worth anything if they weren’t measured against bad ones. When I worked at The Mayflower, I used to encourage the more timid reviewers to say if they didn’t like a show because otherwise readers would not place any value on the positive reviews. I also believe it's better to be talked about critically than ignored- something a number of 'celebrities' seem to agree with. 

Paradoxically the best comfort for a business is the ease with which today’s customers can post comments on company websites and social networks. In practice this means that any good quality business or product will get a vast majority of good reviews. For example, my shop was always at least 99% positive on Amazon. 

What could the hotel do to take advantage of the bad publicity? The obvious answer is, they could improve their service so that guests don’t rate the place as ‘terrible’ in the first place. They could now take the opportunity of media interest to explain the reasons why they haven’t lived up to the expectations of customers previously, admit that fining bad reviewers was a mistake and genuinely overhaul how they run the business, perhaps offering a money back guarantee.

Actually there could be an up side to the bad publicity. It is quite conceivable that some people will think it worth spending thirty odd quid just to be able to say that they stayed at this notorious hotel. Provided they don’t give it a bad review afterwards. And of course, if the hotel has fined all 174 TripAdvisor critics a £100 each, that’s a nice little earner.

This blog was written by Paul Lewis, owner of the Winchester based marketing consultancy Seven Experience. You can connect with him on Google+ and LinkedIn