Thursday, December 1, 2011

Dealing with Criticism Online - Updated

Social media’s power is well documented.  The social connections between us and our friends create a web of trust.  Word of mouth along this web is incredibly valuable.  It can also be very damaging if that word is negative.

Sites like Yelp and DoctorBase give a platform for people to publish their opinion about your practice.  This can feel like you’re giving up control, that anyone can come on and say anything about your site.

It is inevitable that someone will post something negative about your clinic.  It’s probably already happened.  Seeing negative, often pejorative or personally insulting things posted about yourself, your staff, or your clinic can make you and your staff angry.

First and most importantly, if the post is threatening, or leads you to be concerned for the safety of you, your staff, your clinic, or anyone, you should contact the police immediately.

Assuming it’s not threatening, you might be tempted to ignore it, to “shout it down”, or even to contact your lawyer.  These are rarely helpful.

The most important thing to do is take a breath, and assess the type of posting.  Typically, the worst thing you can do is contact a lawyer.  This can lead to a phenomenon known as the Streisand Effect which can have serious repercussions.

In 2003 a photographer named Kenneth Adelman took approx. 12,000 photos of California coastline in an effort to document coastal erosion.  One of these photos showed the home of Barbara Streisand who launched a lawsuit to the tune of $50 million in order to have the photo supressed.  The photo had been virtually ignored up to this point, but as a result of the lawsuit the photo gained widespread popularity.  Thus, the Streisand Effect is when an attempt to supress something results in increased attention to it.

There are cases where contacting a lawyer are warranted, but this should only be done in the most egregious cases, where substantial factual information is wrong and you have documentation to prove otherwise.  Suing over expressions of opinion will typically not end in your favour, and you run the risk of aggravating a severe negative reaction from the net in general.  Finally this also gives the appearance of having “something to hide”.

Some companies offer services that they claim will give you back control.  These include posting positive reviews and “down-voting” negative reviews.  Some will even offer template agreements for your patients that claim to grant you copyright over your patients’ reviews and opinions about your practice.

It is up to you if you decide to make use of these services, but it is important to consider the potential ramifications carefully.  Reviews posted online by these services are easy for sites like Yelp to spot.  Often times these reviews will originate from the same internet address, or can become apparent through other statistical analyses.  This will give the appearance of “ballot stuffing” and can have a substantial negative impact on your reputation.

Agreements that claim to assign to you or your clinic the copyrights of patients’ postings are a tricky matter as well.  None of these agreements have ever been tested in any court.  The net will also perceive this as an attempt to censor opinion which can lead to strong negative reactions online.

So, what can you do?
The important thing is to engage.  It is important to demonstrate a calm desire to help the poster, while asking them to take the discussion offline to discuss specifics.  You should use phrases like “We’re sorry you had such a negative experience, please call us at XXX-XXXX and ask for [first name of you or a member of your staff] so we can resolve your concerns.”  Never discuss specifics, even if the poster does.  The poster has no obligations under HIPAA, you and your staff do.

Never insult anyone, or call them a liar.  It does not matter if they are out and out lying, this will be perceived as an attempt to persist and will mostly likely devolve into an insult hurling competition.  At most, consider something like “Our records disagree” and again try to get the patient onto the phone.

It’s important to remember that attempts to supress or stamp out negativity about your client will not work online.  If a lawyer or representative from a PR firm tells you otherwise it is important to remember that they have a vested interest in you buying their service, but not in your online reputation.

It is impossible to erase a post from the memory of the internet.  Even if you succeed in a libel suit, search engines and archive systems the world over have cached the post, and it is also likely your suit has drawn added attention to the posting.  Once posted the damage is done. The best you can do is mitigate it by presenting your clinic as a customer-service oriented business who wants to make their customers happy.

Update:  In the post above I linked to an article about a dentist who used some aggressive means to attempt  to deal with online criticism.  It seems the blow back against these tactics continues, with her Yelp rating now down to 1 star.  The net's reaction to perceived censorship can be severe, and this serves as a cautionary tale.

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