The final word on 20/20: How veterinarians should respond to negative press

The final word on 20/20: How veterinarians should respond to negative press

Two simple but savvy media lessons for veterinary practitioners thrust into difficult discussions about the profession—in the exam room or on TV.
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Jan 21, 2014

As I suggested in my previous column, stories like 20/20’s “Is Your Veterinarian Being Honest With You?” have a trickle-down effect in the media. The network piece that aired in November and blasted veterinary medicine was just the beginning, not the end—at least for a time. A few local TV stations picked up the network story idea, targeting veterinarians in local markets; bloggers wrote about “rip-off vets,” as one blogger said; and radio talk shows used the topic as fodder for discussion.

At this point—at least for now—the story seems to have slipped away, as stories do in these days of quickly changing news cycles.

Some veterinarians have emailed asking for my opinion about what their response—if any—should be, not only about this story but also when negative PR hits the profession or misinformation is spread about a veterinary product.

As a writer, blogger, social media presence and radio host, I’ve been in media my entire adult life. My advice to you might seem contradictory. Still I’m totally confident in the strategy:

Be yourself. I write a lot about the veterinarian-client bond. If your clients believe in you and like you, you’re ahead of the game. Instead of assuming segments like 20/20 apply to you, clients will ask what you thought of the segment—and tell you they’re behind you 100 percent. One pet owner, Bobbi Ann Fulk in Des Plaines, Ill., told me, “I know preventive care makes a difference. Not only can we catch problems early, potentially we can save money. People must understand that—for me, it’s common sense. I think the biggest hang-up is that some people don’t trust their veterinarian. I say then it’s on you to find someone else who suits you better.”

As for how she feels about her veterinarian, Dr. Kristin Junkas at Wright Animal Hospital, Fulk is positively ebullient: “I love her! She’s shown over and over that pets come first. And she’s so good at her job.”

Fifteen minutes later, Fulk is still telling me stories about her veterinarian. Clearly, she admires her veterinarian’s medical judgment, but equally as important is that she connects with Dr. Junkas as a person.

Nothing can beat that relationship, not even “Dr. Google.”

Be proactive. Use social media and/or your practice’s newsletter to communicate and get ahead of negative publicity about you or the profession at large.

For example, in the 20/20 piece, the producers played big-time on pet owner concerns regarding anesthesia. How about posting on Facebook, “I saw that 20/20 segment tonight, and unfortunately what the show forgot to point out is that one in 5,000 to 10,000 pets has a problem with anesthesia, and problems will occur less with a certified veterinary technician trained in anesthesia, like we have at our practice. We want to lessen the odds even further, which is why in some pets, we suggest preanesthetic blood work.” (And if you’re not on Facebook, get on Facebook!)

Of course, the corresponding tweet on the topic has to be shorter. Speak up and keep it simple so pet owners can understand, but never talk down to clients. You are the expert—act like it. Don’t be hesitant about citations, such as, ‘”According to the American College of Veterinary Dentists … ”

Most important, keep your social media on the topic social. Interact with clients who ask questions. Being proactive makes you appear confident and you’re taking the lead instead of just responding.

Veterinarians who cultivate trusting relationships with clients and who are proactive about responding to media reports are those who will be least affected by these reports.

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