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Is litigation the answer to negative online reviews?

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An Australian veterinarian who said an ex-client’s negative online reviews cost him his practice was awarded damages of nearly $30,000 after a six-year court battle.

Allen O’Grady, BVSc, MVSc, sued Carrie Barlow for defamation due to comments she made on Twitter, Facebook, and online review site True Local in 2014. Among the comments Barlow posted online: O’Grady was “grumpy,” “took advantage of a distressed pet owner,” and overcharged her for treatment.

What should you do if your hospital runs into the same problem?

NEWStat spoke with Caitlin DeWilde, DVM, owner of The Social DVM, a veterinary-specific digital marketing firm specializing in social media strategy and day-to-day management, consulting, and coaching for veterinary hospitals, about the case.

NEWStat: What’s your take on bringing legal action against negative reviewers?

Caitlin DeWilde: I think that is a very personal decision—and one that may not be feasible for all practices. I would only consider [taking legal action] if the business has been significantly impacted, can easily prove that it’s a direct result of the online activity, and if the business has the time and money to fight the legal battle. However, I think this would be very difficult to prove, and the cost and length of the battle alone is an additional emotional and financial drain on the practice. This case took six years to resolve! I think the same money and time could be better spent on working with existing clients to build loyalty and improve compliance, marketing to gain new clients, and cultivating good reviews to drown out the bad one(s). If a practice does move forward with a legal battle, however, I would definitely recommend consulting with a crisis-management company and consulting with a veterinary-specific lawyer who will understand the nuances of veterinary medicine.

NEWStat: Have any veterinarians in the US successfully sued clients for negative online comments? We’re aware of a Florida veterinarian who sued a client for defamation after the client posted negative online reviews in 2018, but that case was settled before going to trial.

CD: I am not aware of any who have done it successfully.

NEWStat: Have any US practices been forced to close due to online criticism?

CD: There have been practices that have been deeply impacted by online reviews, and, sadly, I know of more veterinarians and team members who have committed suicide because of online bullying—and their practices closed as a result of that.

NEWStat: What do you think of the way O’Grady handled the situation?

CD: I think the things he did right were to 1) provide a summary of the charges and breakdown at the time services were rendered, 2) agree to give the owner the patient records/transfer them to another veterinarian, and 3) have a manager reach out to the owner on the phone after the initial email.

[But] it appears that the owner asked for more information about her pet’s condition and also expressed that she was unhappy in an [initial] email. However, the practice didn’t respond until five days later. If a practice has an unhappy client, five days is a long time to wait. I suspect the delay contributed to the owner’s anger and desire to make a more public review.

Bottom line: I totally understand where O’Grady was coming from—he absolutely had a right to defend his reputation and his practice, and I have to give him props for standing up to an online bully. 

NEWStat: What do you recommend for people in O’Grady’s situation?

CD: It’s important to reach out to unhappy clients in a nonpublic arena promptly—a phone call is great—and try to resolve the situation out of the public eye whenever possible. If it can’t be resolved, the next step is to decide whether the practice will continue to see the pet. It depends on each state’s practice act, however, as to whether or not the practice can refuse treatment, particularly in emergency situations. Often, if an agreement or resolution can’t be reached between the owner and the practice, it’s best to inform the owner that the practice will transfer the pet’s records to another facility so care for the pet can continue elsewhere. 

And again, I would go back to working on eliciting positive reviews. Make it easy for clients to leave good reviews for you with clickable links on your website, and in social and email communications. Institute a policy to subtly ask for feedback on postappointment surveys or use an app that facilitates leaving reviews. When you get a great review, share it with your team and promote it on your social media channels. Focus on the good whenever you can! 

Photo credit: © Gettyimages/BrianAJackson