‘Zebra’ lawsuit ignites chain reaction in online real estate community

Real estate broker and trainer Denise Lones says she’s faced “a firestorm of retaliation” on the Internet over a trademark infringement suit she filed last week against real estate agent and blogger Daniel Rothamel.

Lones, whose company provides marketing and other business services to real estate agents, says supporters of Rothamel launched “one of the most aggressive online bullying campaigns I’ve seen,” after a Feb. 25 story about the lawsuit published by Inman News.

Lones and Rothamel both employ zebra-themed imagery on their websites. Rothamel authors the Real Estate Zebra blog and promotes himself as “Real Estate Zebra,” and Lones publishes “The Zebra Report” and writes the “Zebra Blog.” In her lawsuit, Lones claims her use of zebra imagery predates Rothamel’s, and that he is a direct competitor.

Rothamel said his “zebra” handle relates to his work as a high school and college basketball referee, and that he had never heard of the Lones Group before receiving a cease-and-desist letter from the company’s lawyer in July.

The lawsuit generated a flurry of blog posts and discussions among Realtors and other real estate industry professionals on numerous websites, including social networking sites Facebook and Twitter.

Many commentators questioned Lones’ decision to sue Rothamel, who is well known among real estate professionals for not only his blog, which he started in 2006, but as a frequent moderator and presenter at Inman News events. Numerous supporters of Rothamel have changed their social media profiles to display zebra photos.

Rothamel is one of several presenters scheduled to speak Wednesday at Inman News’ Agent Reboot one-day event in Seattle, where he will discuss topics including the use of blogging and Facebook as marketing tools (Rothamel received the cease-and-desist letter from Lones prior to the announcement about his appearance in Seattle).

Some of Lones’ critics said she should have known that suing Rothamel would generate bad publicity in the real estate industry that would harm her business, and that her decision showed a poor grasp of Internet and social media marketing techniques.

“I think it’s safe to say the Lones Group had no clue” what the reaction would be to filing the lawsuit “against a blogger as well known and respected as Daniel Rothamel,” wrote Drew Meyers, a former Zillow.com community relations specialist turned consultant, in a Feb. 26 blog post. “Doing what they just did is pure brand suicide in today’s social media world.”

Discussions about the lawsuits, including a Facebook page created by Rothamel’s supporters, now turn up prominently in search engine results for Lones’ business, The Lones Group.

“Several pages of (search engine) results are stacked with toxic, defamatory, misleading, and incorrect information about this woman and her business,” said Frances Flynn Thorsen, a former Realtor who who now works as a real estate writer, educator and consultant.

“The issue is not about the lawsuit anymore, it’s about cyber bullying and the mob mentality,” Thorsen told Inman News, elaborating on a blog post she wrote in Lones’ defense.

Miami Beach, Fla.-based Realtor Kevin Tomlinson, commenting on Meyers’ post, seconded Thorsen’s take that the flood of criticism directed against Lones amounted to bullying.

“You guys are out to teach her a Google lesson and you are taking part in bullying her yourself,” Tomlinson wrote.

Thorsen was particularly dismayed that Todd Carpenter, the National Association of Realtors’ director of digital engagement, chose to weigh in on the topic on Realtor Magazine’s “Speaking of Real Estate” blog.

In his blog post, Carpenter not only acknowledged that “thousands of comments and tweets have spewed from an angry mob,” but identified himself, tongue-in-cheek, as “a member of this angry mob.”

“Daniel is a friend of mine and that relationship biases my personal opinion about this situation,” Carpenter explained.

Relating a similarly awkward situation he’d found himself in several years ago, Carpenter advised Lones that “doing something magnanimous like dropping the suit with a humble blog post could do wonders.”

Carpenter acknowledged that The Lones Group “may decide the lawsuit is more important than the mob they’re facing right now. But I hope they understand that backing down could be the bigger win for them in the long run.”

Like Rothamel, Lones is a NAR member, Thorsen said, and NAR should not be seen as weighing in against Lones in a pending legal matter.

Thorsen said she thinks Carpenter, along with some Realtors who have been critical of Lones, may have violated the Realtor Code of Ethics, which prohibits Realtors from “making false or misleading statements about competitors, competitors’ businesses and competitors’ business practices.”

Carpenter told Inman News that his post did not discuss the legal merits of Lones’ case, only the social media reaction, and that the Realtor Code of Ethics did not apply to the post. Those who have criticized Carpenter for offering his opinion are “making a mountain out of a molehill,” he said.

Calls for boycott

While some who have commented on the lawsuit said they wanted to help Lones with damage control, some agents stated they would never do business with her, and some have called for a boycott of her business.

On the Google place page for The Lones Group, one anonymous commenter also threatened to boycott other companies that hire Lones.

“Want to be boycotted? Hire them,” an individual stated. “There is currently a boycott of them and anyone who hires them being planned by the most influential real estate professionals and consumer groups.”

A Denver-based consultant who offers website design services to real estate professionals, Knox Richards, created a fake Lones Group website that featured zebra imagery and used the URL of one of his own businesses.

“Welcome to our Zebra News blog focusing on real estate marketing,” the fake Lones Group website stated. “We revolutionized the world of real estate marketing but have no idea how the Internet works.”

The site was taken down Wednesday evening, but was still available for viewing in a Google cache.

“What’s coming up when people search ‘Denise Lones’ is all these negative articles,” said Marlow Harris, a Seattle-based Realtor. “They are not well measured. They’re not calm. They’re calling for a lynching.”

Harris, who has attended seminars conducted by Lones and also met Rothamel, said she doesn’t want to be seen as taking sides in the dispute, but said many who have commented on it seem to too quick to dismiss Lones’ right to have her day in court.

Harris said she herself was confused by the similarity of the “zebra” branding employed by both Lones and Rothamel. When Rothamel first launched his Real Estate Zebra blog, Harris assumed it was Lones’ and tried to send her a note of congratulations through a contact form on the blog.

“When Real Estate Zebra appeared, I said, ‘Denise, welcome to the blogosphere, so glad you’re joining us,” Harris said. “Daniel e-mailed me back and said, ‘No, it’s my blog.’ “

Each might have still been unaware of each other, Harris said, because “I never said boo to either person about it.”

“It seems to me it’s a business disagreement that’s not anybody (else’s) business,” Harris said. “I’m sure Daniel is a nice guy, but it’s kind of irrelevant — its going to go to the courts, let them decide.”

Statement from Lones Group

Lones did not respond to requests for comment. But in a statement on her website, the real estate broker and trainer said she has spent years building a strong brand and has a legal right to protect it.

“While we understand that Mr. Rothamel’s friends and social media contacts have a right to their opinion, the actions taken by these individuals are inflaming the situation, and detracting from the actual issue at hand,” Lones’ statement said. What started as a trademark infringement issue “has now turned into full-scale social media bullying.”

Lones promised that her company would not “engage in slander or do any damage online” to Rothamel, or “leave unpleasant messages” on his phone or website contact forms.

She also stated, “In spite of the negative publicity this situation has generated, we are adamant about our right to protect our brand,” Lones said. “We encourage members of the real estate community to be prudent in their reaction to the lawsuit.”

Rothamel said he, too, has been surprised by the level of interest in the lawsuit and the outpouring of support for him, and said he did not orchestrate or coordinate the response.

Asked if he had seen any actions by his supporters on his behalf that concerned him, he said he hadn’t.

“My preference is always that people are positive, but people are going to have their reactions, and I can’t control their reaction,” Rothamel said. “I can only control my reaction.”

One of Rothamel’s most ardent supporters, Phoenix-based broker Jay Thompson, said that in writing about the lawsuit, he did not intend to harm her business, though he said he believes Lones was wrong to sue Rothamel.

Thompson said Wednesday that he was working on a follow-up post to his initial take on the lawsuit, which he said he had de-indexed in order to reduce its prominence in Google’s rankings.

Thompson’s Feb. 25 post, “The Lones Group v. Rothamel: A case study in destroying your online reputation,” quickly rose to the first page of results in Google rankings of keyword searches for “The Lones Group,” generating more than 200 comments.

“There is little doubt that posts like you are reading now will get indexed in Google — forever,” Thompson wrote at the time. “Even those agents who aren’t active in the social media space are likely to Google The Lones Group.”

Thompson said he is not de-indexing the original post out of any fear that Lones will sue him, but wants to make it clear that it was never his intent to harm her business.

(In his follow-up post, published after he spoke to Inman News, Thompson said, “It is my hope that no one attacks Denise or her company. ‘Attack the idea, not the person,’ debating in an open, honest, non-adversarial way is a good thing.”).

Although he originally praised Richards’ parody Lones Group site — “Knox, you are THE man” Thompson said in an exchange with Richards in the comment section of a blog post — the site was “not as spiteful” when he commented about it, Thompson said.

Thompson said he has asked Richards to remove a link connecting the parody site to Thompson’s PhoenixRealEsateGuy.com site.

Richards, who also claimed credit for the parody Lones Group site on the Facebook fan page created by Rothamel’s supporters, did not respond to a request for comment submitted to his firm’s website. The link to Thompson’s site was removed Wednesday, and all references to the Lones Group were removed later in the evening.

Thompson deplored anonymous sniping at Lones, but said he and other prominent figures in the “RE.net” — as the real estate blogosphere is sometimes called — aren’t to blame for the actions of others.

“If you don’t have the guts to put your name behind what you have to say, you should shut up and not say anything,” Thompson said.

Anonymous threats are uncalled for, Thompson said, and “I personally feel bad if someone took the post I wrote about the suit and twisted it into something bad for Denise.”

Thompson said he hopes his follow-up blog post “will make some people think about what they’ve done.”

But, he said, “I’m not their father and I can’t make them do things. There are people who listen to my opinion, so I do have some obligation to clarify the article that I wrote,” he said.

Thompson, who is a friend of Rothamel’s, has also started a legal defense fund for Rothamel that he said has raised more than $2,000 to date.

“It’s a very emotional situation,” Thompson said. “Daniel is such a good guy — so well-liked by people. I’m defending a friend, is what it boils down to. I take my friendships very seriously, and when someone attacks a friend of mine, I’m going to do what I can to help them — but not at the expense of Denise’s business.”

The trademark issues in dispute are obviously important to both Lones and Rothamel. Lones said in the online statement, “We will pursue whatever course of action our attorneys recommend to appropriately resolve this issue,” and Rothamel says that for his part, “I know what my brand is, and this situation has made it even more clear to me than it was before.”

Power of social media

But the lawsuit seems to have touched a larger, collective nerve, illustrating of the power of the Internet as a tool to not only build, but also to potentially damage reputations and brands.

Carpenter recalled another incident that took place nearly three years ago, in which Redfin CEO Glenn Kelman defused a flap that erupted when one of the company’s “contract bloggers” likened San Diego-based broker Kris Berg and her husband to a pair of toy dolls.

Berg — who is a prominent blogger and an Inman News columnist — had taken a swipe at a new Redfin home-tour service, and what Berg described as the “wacky goings-on at the Redfin think tank.”

The Redfin blogger published an item on San Diego Sweet Digs, one of several localized Redfin company blogs, that criticized Berg and belittled a food drive that she and her husband, Steve, had organized in their community.

Kelman promptly fired the blogger, apologized to Berg, and issued “an apology to everyone else in real estate, many of whom have reacted to more than just what we said about Kris,” he said at the time.

Kelman used the rest of the post to discuss the tensions between traditional brokerages employing traditional commission-based models and Redfin, which pays agents salaries and customer-satisfaction bonuses.

He said the post about Berg had made him “physically ill” — not only because Berg was a “wonderful person, a total pro and a darn good blogger,” but because it deepened the “brainless, destructive division between Redfin and our peers” that had caused him great anguish.

Carpenter said that by admitting that the blogger had made a mistake and apologizing, Kelman “completely turned around the situation. People went from going, ‘I can’t believe Redfin is doing this,’ to ‘Glenn is a stand-up guy.’ “

Thompson, who blasted the Redfin blogger on his own site, praised Kelman as “a stand-up guy” for firing the blogger and issuing an apology.

Thompson recalled another incident in which a property management firm in Chicago sued a tenant who had complained about her moldy apartment on Twitter. He also blogged about that case, calling it a textbook example of “how to royally screw up your reputation via social media.”

Thompson said he thinks one reason people have reacted so strongly to the Lones Group’s lawsuit against Rothamel is that “we’re a very litigious society, and that annoys a lot of people, including me. Pick up the phone and talk before you get the lawyers involved.”

Thompson said he resolved an issue with another agent, who was using “Phoenix real estate guy” as a byline on blog posts, by picking up the phone.

“He was very cool about it — he knew about the blog and changed his byline,” Thompson said. He said he also avoided picking a fight with an agent who has registered the website URL phoenixrealestategirl.com.

“I could argue that’s infringing on me — we’re in the same market,” Thompson said. “If I had a problem with it, I wouldn’t go to an attorney, I’d call her up. And if she said, ‘Screw you,’ I wouldn’t sue her.”

Carpenter, who noted wryly that “I’m employed by this organization that every once in awhile gets criticized,” said sometimes it’s best to just stay on the sidelines.

When NAR comes under fire in the blogosphere and facts are misrepresented, it’s sometimes necessary to engage in the conversation, Carpenter said.

“Other times, when people state an opinion, they are welcome to state it,” he said. “If we engage, we are actually bringing more of an audience to them. Just because somebody is criticizing you doesn’t mean you are going to engage with them. Trying to argue with them online doesn’t always work.”

Rothamel said of the online reaction to the lawsuit, “there’s a lot to be learned from this entire situation. That’s one of the things I do hope comes out of this. My hope is if we can learn from this, we can avoid this type of situation in the future. I don’t want to have anybody to have to go through this.”

And Thompson said the online response has been “a fascinating thing to watch. It’s a very interesting look at the impact of social media. That’s why I’m watching it, and a whole lot of people are watching it.”

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