How to Handle a Social Media Crisis

Kimberly Anne May, DVM, MS, Wildwood, Missouri

Jonathan L. Bernstein , Bernstein Crisis Management, Monrovia, California

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How to Handle a Social Media Crisis

You can stabilize a crashing patient with the best of them, so why do negative posts or comments on your social media feeds produce a strong, visceral reaction that lingers like the scent of anal glands in the examination room?

When faced with a social media crisis—meaning an online situation that poses a risk for a long-term, negative impact on your practice—you may feel like it is the end of the world. The good news is that you can de-escalate the situation and prevent long-term harm with a relatively simple approach. 


Keep Calm & Practice On

First and foremost, remind yourself that this is not personal: it is business. Sure, the comments may feel personal, but remind yourself they are not. Do not give critics and trolls the power to control your personal or professional wellbeing. 


Assess the Situation

What sparked the online post or comments that have become a crisis? Is this an attack or a group of legitimate complaints that feels like an attack? Attacks tend to involve heated, emotional comments that may include profanity, personal attacks, insults toward team members, criticism based on hearsay instead of firsthand experiences, and ALL CAPS typing, often punctuated by numerous exclamation points. Legitimate complaints may contain emotional comments but likely will be in the context of describing how the client felt as a result of his or her negative experience. Legitimate complaints provide actionable criticism, although not always in the most constructive manner. 


Reframe Your Perspective

Gather the facts, and take an honest and open-minded look at the comments and posts instead of dismissing them. Critics are often your first alert system to identify flaws in your services—they can provide you with opportunities to improve, says Jay Baer, author of Hug Your Haters. He writes, “Haters aren’t your problem … ignoring them is.”1 


Remain Professional

Remember, a person is behind the comments, and that person’s judgment may have been clouded by emotion. Do not fall into the same trap and respond with anger or hostility, even if the comments or posts are angry and hurtful. 


Respond with the 3Cs

The 3Cs are compassion, confidence, and competence.2,3 Be sure you also do not violate a fourth C: confidentiality.

Veterinary professionals can be some of the most compassionate people on earth, yet, ironically, compassion is the first thing they tend to toss out the window when faced with a social media crisis. Avoid the formal, fact-laden responses rebutting every detail of the client’s allegations unless you want to spend the rest of your week in an endless back-and-forth debate that benefits no one.

Focus on the 3Cs in all of your responses, and you can reduce the risk for an escalated crisis. Commenters usually seek acknowledgement of their concerns, not always resolution; when you address their concerns with compassion, you show your human side and demonstrate that you care. By exhibiting confidence and competence, you protect your status as veterinary professionals and business owners.  


Be Consistent with Messaging

Many cases of cyberbullying expand to include verbal attacks via phone, email, or even in person. Appoint a team member or a core team to quickly develop your practice’s 3C-based response. Make sure your entire team is aware of the situation and your responses and messages, and emphasize the necessity for consistency in delivering the messages. Identify a point person whom team members should contact if additional problems arise or further support is needed. 


Do Not Forget the Bystanders

When you engage with people online, you are speaking to everyone who can see the interaction, including prospective clients and team members. What impression do you want them to have of your practice? 


Know When to Quit

If you are the type of person who has to have the last word, you need to kick that habit or you will be in for a bumpy ride. Avoid responding to every single comment made on your initial 3C-based response. Post your response, then let it ride. Monitor the discussion, and respond only when necessary to address misinformation. Even then, incorporate the 3Cs into your response. 


Know Your Limits & Get Help When Needed

If at any time you or your team experience threats of physical harm, contact the appropriate authorities. Seek help from trained crisis-management providers if you need guidance or feel overwhelmed.

Seeking Help

The AVMA has a number of resources to help veterinarians and veterinary practices maintain their online reputations, respond to criticism, and mitigate cyberbullying.4  Visit for more information. If you are being cyberbullied, the AVMA has contracted with Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc, to provide a 24/7 cyberbullying hotline for veterinarians at (636) 531-1140.


Heal the Healers

Social media crises are often short-lived, but they can leave a lasting mark on the mental wellbeing of you and your team. Do what you need to heal yourselves, and do not be afraid to seek assistance from a mental health professional. 

Preventive Care

Preventive care is just as important for your online reputation as it is for your patients’ health and can go a long way in preventing social media crises.4 Own your online presence, including your pages on review sites. Provide high quality, client- and patient-focused care that builds loyalty and support. Implement solid policies regarding team members’ social media use and ensure clear guidelines are in place for your practice’s social media. 

Be proactive and use the 3Cs when responding to comments, including creating basic responses to common situations that may spark a social media crisis (eg, denial of service because of the client’s financial issues, unexpected costs, escaped pets). Prepare these responses beforehand, instead of during a stressful situation. They can be quickly modified, saving you time during an actual crisis.


Preventive care (eg, owning your online presence, preparing model responses to commonly encountered situations) can reduce the threat of social media crises. Learn to differentiate legitimate criticisms from attacks to identify opportunities to improve your practice and patient care. If you do become the subject of criticism or cyberbullying, focus on remaining calm, supporting your team, and responding with a focus on the 3Cs. Know that you and your practice will survive the crisis, and do not be afraid to seek assistance.

1 When facing a social media crisis, focus on the 3Cs (ie, compassion, confidence, competence) while you structure your responses.

2 Social media crises can have a lasting impact on team wellbeing—do not hesitate to seek help, especially when crises get out of hand.

3 Be proactive and prepare for social media crises by developing basic responses to common situations to help diffuse an issue before it becomes a crisis.

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