Obama Bear Hug Leads to a Boost in Online Reviews (Negative and Positive)

Business owners beware: A spur-of-the-moment hug with the U.S. President can land your enterprise in the middle of an online review fight.

Unless you’re a restaurant owner from Fort Pierce, Fla., in which case you’ll embrace the spotlight, hit up the daytime time talk circuit and go on to bear-hug other notable U.S. citizens.

In the days that followed Scott Van Duzer’s hug of President Obama, the restaurateur’s Yelp page turned into a online forum for political outcry, at first racking up negative reviews, and then receiving a flood of 5-star reviews in return.

Most of Big Apple Pizza’s then 455 reviews were based on reviewers’ political leanings and not the merits of the pizza.

Therein lies the problem, said Kari Hernandez, a 15-year public relations professional from Austin, Texas. When business owners engage in divisive topics in the public sphere, it can turn bad, quickly.

In Big Apple Pizza, she finds a cautionary and educational tale.

Though it’s bizarre a pizza shop and a hug was the backdrop of a heated political debate, she said the moment served to capture “the power and danger of using (online) rating systems.

“All of the reviews were biased,” the co-owner and manager of Ink Public Relations said. “They were just people who had political differences, and that can make or break a business.“

Rather than join the back-and-forth discussion on Yelp, Van Duzer appeared live on MSNBC, met with Anderson Cooper and talked with multiple online and print media outlets.

“I don’t regret anything I did,” he said. “It’s my vote, my voice, and I respect everyone’s opinion, but it doesn’t have to be as nasty as it’s become.”

And, that’s exactly how Hernandez would have had him react to the storm brewing around him.

“He ended up getting great exposure,” Hernandez said. “He really took the high road and it ended up working for him.

Hernandez’s firm helps technology and green energy companies manage online presence in social media, as well as traditional media, and has seen this type of backlash firsthand.

“We don’t represent restaurants,” but, she added, “we advise our clients to be as transparent as possible and address issues as they come up. What they did right was to be direct, go on morning talk shows and do interviews.”

Often reserved for social media channels and forums like Yelp’s “talk” section, heated discussions often find their way onto online review sites on Google, Yelp and others.

Though not reaching the exposure of an Obama-bear-hug, many restaurants eventually land a bad review.

“You just have to take the good with the bad,” Tony Villani, an Austin pizza shop owner, likes to say.

His neighborhood eatery, Little Deli & Pizzeria, carries a hearty four-and-half star rating spread among 417 reviews.

And, though it has had its share of negative reviews —  and a particularly dubious write-up on one occasion — Villani believes in the trade-off of Yelp.

It offers the ability to learn from customer reviews and receive new business.

“You don’t really want to open a can of worms,” he said about responding to a low rating on Yelp. “You never want to lash out at someone but try and understand the situation. The thing we have to keep in mind is, we’re not going to make all people happy all the time.”

Like Van Duzer, Villani and daytime manager Tammy Foreman ultimately leave it to Yelp to determine an authentic reviews.

“Yelp is pretty good. If you let them know what’s going on, they’ll take care of it,” Foreman said.

Yelp, for its part, removed Big Apple Pizza’s reviews it felt violated its terms of service. A spokesperson released this response shortly following the media frenzy:

“Although most instances like these do not reach the level of media attention received by Big Apple Pizza, Yelp has proven policies in place to deal with such events: once brought to Yelp’s attention, our user operations team will remove reviews determined to violate our Terms of Service and Content Guidelines, including reviews that only attack a business’s perceived political ideologies.”

As for Van Duzer, he seems to have only gained from his experience, having carved out a valuable slice of national attention, while his Fort Pierce Yelp page sports a five-star rating — albeit with only three reviews.

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