Manage Online Negativity like a Seasoned Pro: Don’t Let Barking on Social Media Come Back to Bite You

Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter provide unprecedented opportunities to showcase your practice, but they’re also rife with unfair criticisms, venting, and bullying. While receiving harsh feedback—especially if it’s unfounded—about the practice you’ve worked so hard to cultivate can feel unsettling, it doesn’t have to be a death knell. By implementing a few simple social media practices, you can manage online negativity and even use it to your advantage.

by Paula Fitzsimmons

SOCIAL MEDIA PLATFORMS LIKE FACEBOOK AND TWITTER provide unprecedented opportunities to showcase your practice, but they’re also rife with unfair criticisms, venting, and bullying. While receiving harsh feedback—especially if it’s unfounded—about the practice you’ve worked so hard to cultivate can feel unsettling, it doesn’t have to be a death knell. By implementing a few simple social media practices, you can manage online negativity and even use it to your advantage.

No Veterinary Practice Is Immune to Criticism

The internet is a vast, often anonymous space with few rules and little accountability. Adding to that are challenges unique to the veterinary profession, such as misunderstandings about payment and perceived unmet service expectations. “The vet space is somewhat primed to be reviewed harshly. People often bring their beloved pets to vet clinics in a state of duress,” said Lukas Keindl, chief product officer and cofounder (who oversees marketing) of Bond Vet, a New York–based practice specializing in urgent care.

Given this combination of factors, complaints and criticisms are inevitable. “It’s like in life when you put yourself out there and create something, there are always going to be critics,” said Kate Zirkle, marketing manager at VetSuccess, a veterinary business management firm based in Toronto, Ontario.

BluePearl Specialty and Emergency Pet Hospital, whose network of practices extends across the United States, saw more than 1 million pets and received thousands of online reviews in 2019, said Paul Pratscher, director of customer experience and insights. “We strive to provide the best customer experiences to all who walk through our doors. Unfortunately, there are a small number of times when that experience does not live up to our standards.”

The alternative, said Zirkle, is to not have a social media presence, “which would be of far greater detriment to your practice than simply dealing with the negativity that arises.”

Criticism Can Sometimes Be a Catalyst for Change

Legitimate complaints from clients can sometimes offer insights into your operations and help shepherd meaningful change. “We’re all humans who make mistakes,” admitted Keindl. “We know the stakes are especially high with pets, and it’s crucial to us that mistakes aren’t in vain.”

He said negative online feedback helps bring areas for improvement to the surface, which in turn makes their practice stronger. “We learn through the negative feedback and get back to work helping pets, ultimately thankful that the client spoke up, so we could course-correct.”

Rob Halpin, director of communications at AAHA-accredited Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Angell Animal Medical Center in Boston, sees negative comments as an opportunity to do a deep dive into hospital practices. Areas consistently ranked poorly on social media are a clue that something needs attention. “For instance, if a hefty percentage of complaints are about wait times for appointments, it’s better to work on resolving that, than in trying to devise crafty responses to the people posting that sentiment. This is how we improve the patient and client experience in the long run and, by extension, our reviews on social media.”

“We learn through the negative feedback and get back to work helping pets, ultimately thankful that the client spoke up, so we could course-correct.”
—LUKAS KEINDL, CHIEF PRODUCT OFFICER AND COFOUNDER OF BOND VET

Dealing with Cyberbullying and Harassment

Not all criticism is legitimate. It’s easier to be provocative when hiding behind the anonymity of a keyboard. Pratscher said BluePearl will flag or report reviews they feel are inappropriate or distressing to their practice teams. “There are times when reviews contain personal information about our associates, vulgarities, or violate the site’s terms of service. For example, when a review causes multiple people to ‘pile on’ and the reviewer did not have a legitimate hospital visit, we will flag or report.”

Halpin said they’ve rarely had to block anyone, but he added that it has happened on occasion. “Outright lies, bullying of others on a particular thread, open threats of violence—those are the primary triggers that would cause us to block someone. But again, it’s very rare. We’ve never had to report anyone because of their behavior or commentary on our social channels.”

Another option for dealing with an unfounded comment is to simply ignore it. “That’s a strategy that we engage in quite frequently, particularly when the complaints are baseless, or if they devolve into personal attacks. Most of the time, if an organization is operating with integrity and is genuinely perceived by the market as trying to do the right thing for clients—pets, employees, the community—they’ll earn a significant percentage of followers who will help safeguard its reputation, and often these folks will respond directly to those lobbing baseless attacks,” said Halpin.

Effectively Managing Negative Online Reviews

According to a 2018 study conducted by reputation management firm ReviewTrackers, about 64% of consumers are apt to check Google reviews before deciding whether to patronize a business, 94% of consumers avoid businesses based on negative reviews, and 80% mistrust businesses whose ratings fall below four stars.

While reviews help drive consumer decisions, an occasional negative review doesn’t have to be cause for alarm. Bond Vet has received thousands of positive client reviews, said Keindl, “so a few errant negative reviews haven’t affected our overall rating or deterred clients, so far as we know.”

A negative review can actually be an opportunity for your practice to shine. According to marketing firm BrightLocal, 97% of consumers who check reviews also read the businesses’ responses. In fact, “some customers specifically look for negative reviews first to see how businesses respond to them. Even though we’re seeing more and more that companies can buy fake reviews, customers do still put a lot of weight into reviews,” said Zirkle.

Unless a poster has violated a site’s terms of service, getting online reviews removed can be tricky. If you’ve received a bad review, there is another option, however. Zirkle recommends responding compassionately to the review, then asking your best clients to add positive reviews. “This should help bump the negative review down.”

“ By tailoring your response to each unique situation, you express that you hear them and care.”
—PAUL PRATSCHER, DIRECTOR, CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE AND INSIGHTS, BLUEPEARL SPECIALTY AND EMERGENCY PET HOSPITAL

Generate Goodwill with Online Posts

A seemingly innocuous post title like “Should You Feed Your Dog a Grain-Free Diet?” can generate as much controversy as political discourse, stirring emotion on both sides of the issue. That doesn’t mean you have to avoid thoughtful online discussions.

“We are a direct and honest company. We seek to be knowledgeable yet approachable. We’ve built out our blog to thoroughly answer questions that our clients have actually asked. Some of those topics may be controversial (CBD, euthanasia), but we feel it’s important to share our perspective as medical professionals and an authority in the space,” said Keindl.

Not every post has to be deep, however. The following are two types of posts that tend to keep things tension-free and could be added to a posting mix.

Patient Success Stories

“Our view is that patient success stories are not only received more favorably by everyone—likely because social media is rife with polarizing cultural, political, and social commentary and people want a break from that—but people who read those posts can imagine their own pet going through similar experiences, and they want to know that all will be OK,” said Halpin.

Pictures and Videos

These almost always perform better on social media than simple text posts, says Zirkle. “Humans are visual creatures. Selfie-style videos can add a warm, relatable element and often encourage engagement among followers.”

How to Monitor What People Are Saying About Your Practice Online

Knowing what people are saying about your practice can give you an edge by allowing you to respond swiftly or correct mistakes. “If anything comes up that needs to be relayed to the clinic team, we’ll partner with the ops team to make it happen and to improve operations,” said Keindl.

If you’re new to monitoring your practice’s online reputation, using Google Alerts might be a good place to start, according to Pratscher. “Set up key words, such as the name of your practice and your doctors, to have that news funneled into your inbox as it becomes available online.”

If you’re at a more advanced level, a media monitoring service like Meltwater or Cision can be useful, Pratscher says. “These tools will keep track of your media mentions across traditional and nontraditional media platforms and provide you with measurable data, such as audience reach and reader demographics. It also gauges tone and sentiment of news coverage, giving you insight into how your company is received by clients and the public at large. These tools can also help you preemptively track crises, which, to your benefit, gives you time to plan responses and get ahead of the online conversation.”

For monitoring online reviews, a reputation-management platform like ReviewTrackers may be something to consider, he says. Aside from sending you real-time email alerts when a review is posted, “this type of tool enables you to post responses and utilize a reporting dashboard to monitor ratings and trends.”

“Humans are visual creatures. Selfie-style videos can add a warm, relatable element and often encourage engagement among followers.”
—KATE ZIRKLE, MARKETING MANAGER, VETSUCCESS

Should You Hire a Social Media Specialist?

Given the demands of your practice, making time to effectively manage an online social media presence can be tough. A staff member dedicated to online marketing can focus on this aspect of your business as well as assist in other marketing areas.

“A media specialist on staff will work as a liaison between hospitals, doctors, and the media, taking the burden of media calls, follow-ups, planning of interviews, outreach, and crises off hospital teams. Additionally, going on camera can be a dreadful task, so having a media spokesperson on call during a crisis, press conference, or other media event can be a huge advantage,” said Pratscher.

Depending on your needs and budget, you might consider hiring a veterinary marketing firm. When you factor in salary, benefits, training, and employee turnover, they can be more cost effective. On the other hand, a staff employee would have a more intimate understanding of your practice.

“Our nimble marketing team monitors and manages our channels manually right now, and they are quick to respond to anyone who writes in with a positive or negative experience. I wouldn’t feel comfortable outsourcing that work, as the customer connection is hugely important to our mission and sense of community and high-touch care,” said Keindl.

Ultimately, maintaining a positive online presence is mostly about your work. “If a clinic is concerned about managing its reputation, then it should focus first and foremost on hiring and keeping the best possible staff, delivering world-class care for animals (and people) every single day of the year, and telling others about that care—not just on social but through all other channels that comprise the marketing mix,” said Halpin.

People Are Watching: How You Respond to Criticism Says a Lot About Your Practice

The way you reply to criticism can affect your online reputation. These expert-recommended best practices can help your practice shine.

Create Customized Responses

“By tailoring your response to each unique situation, you express that you hear them and care. This is also a good opportunity to restate your company policy/mission or what clients most often experience when they visit your hospital. Lastly, drive the conversation away from social media and back to the appropriate channels, like email or phone. End the response with a personal sign-off from either the practice team, a practice manger, or other hospital leader.”
—PAUL PRATSCHER, DIRECTOR, CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE AND INSIGHTS, BLUEPEARL SPECIALTY AND EMERGENCY PET HOSPITAL

Think Before You Post

“Prior to posting, it is important to ask, How will the audience receive this message? What are possible interpretations of this video, photo, text? Is this the appropriate channel of communication? What is going on in the external news environment that may trigger criticism/backlash? For example, during natural disasters, we halt and reevaluate all postings. Postings during these instances can be deemed insensitive or dismissive.”
—PAUL PRATSCHER, DIRECTOR, CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE AND INSIGHTS, BLUEPEARL SPECIALTY AND EMERGENCY PET HOSPITAL

Thank Each Reviewer

“Positive and negative client reviews require different types of responses, but both should begin by expressing gratitude. Turn negative reviews around by apologizing, often by stating you can understand how they may feel that way. If necessary, offer to make things right so that anyone reading the review can see your responsiveness.”
—THOMAS CATANZARO, DVM, MHA, LFACHE, CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER OF VETERINARY CONSULTING INTERNATIONAL IN LAKEWOOD, COLORADO

Avoid Confrontation

“I’m shocked that it needs to be said, but I’ve seen businesses complain about customers, employees, and vendors on social media to the detriment of their reputation. I’d recommend avoiding that.”
—KATE ZIRKLE, MARKETING MANAGER, VETSUCCESS

 

Paula Fitzsimmons is a content writer and journalist who writes extensively about pets as they intersect with topics such as health, nutrition, technology, and lifestyle. Her client list includes names such as PetMD, PetCoach, Chewy, Lucky Vitamin, and Prevention magazine.

 

Photo credits: ©iStock.com/GlobalStock, ©iStock.com/fizkes, ©iStock.com/zeljkosantrac, ©iStock.com/demaerre, ©iStock.com/BraunS

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