Many people are familiar with one of the worst cases of cyberbullying to date: when Dr. Shirley Koshi, a veterinarian practicing in New York, committed suicide after weeks of online abuse and picketing outside of her clinic. The emotional distress that results from cyberbullying or negative online reviews can be immense and affects the morale of the entire veterinary team. Last week I was in Maryland attending the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine Forum and had the opportunity to listen to Dr. Kimberly May whose session was focused entirely on responding to negative online reviews and cyberbullying. I learned some very interesting statistics and made note of some excellent advice during this session and am sharing my favorite points here.
A 2014 survey by the American Veterinary Medical Association revealed that 1 in 5 veterinarians have been victims of cyberbullying or know someone who has. Half of the respondents reported losing business as a result, in addition to experiencing low workplace morale and the development of workplace toxicity. Cyberbullies are uncooperative and insulting, and very often their complaints lack merit. Surprisingly, 7 out of 10 cyberbully attacks are initiated by previous clients or staff. Comments made by cyberbullies are typically emotional and in response to billing/payment or incidents involving euthanasia. While cyberbully attacks usually last no more than 72 hours before dissipating, the events are often life-altering. Damage to the reputation of individuals and businesses is often irreparable and emotional trauma and distress to staff (and clients) can be extreme.
Although not as severe or traumatic to veterinary staff, negative online reviews can also lead to emotional distress, frustration, and humiliation. It is important to remember that 20% of people reading online reviews are also reading responses to the reviews, to form opinions about what was said. For that reason, Dr. May recommends that veterinary clinics always respond to online reviews, even if they are negative. In responding to reviews, it is important to use four words that begin with C: confidence, competence, compassion, and confidential. As much as possible, try not to become emotional, defensive, overly formal, or accusatory in your response. This will only function to incite more anger in the reviewer and will not look good to those reading the reviews.
When it comes to cyberbullies, they will likely reply to your response with something in CAPSLOCK and possibly laden with profanity. No matter what, always take the high road and respond as rationally as possible. Cyberbullies will “dig their own grave” in that people reading their response will quickly recognize that they are not being fair or open to trying to resolve the situation. Should the situation escalate, consider asking a veterinary association or governing body to become involved. Sometimes a 3rd party review of the case can help to gain objective information about the situation and how it might be handled most appropriately.
Finally, it is important that all members of the veterinary team exercise self-compassion during these difficult circumstances. These are not situations to be ashamed about and nobody should feel they are at fault. Even if a mistake in communication or medical procedure was made, we must acknowledge that we are human and sometimes an apology and offer to help can make a tremendous difference. The bottom line is that any business or medical professional is subject to negative online reviews; but it is how those reviews are responded to that will have the lasting impact on your staff and clients.
More information regarding responding to online criticism and dealing with cyberbullies is available online for AVMA members.