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Columns, Communication, COVID-19

Don’t go dark during dark times

Social media plays a key role during evolving situations like COVID-19. Clients will always count on you for pet care advice and as a voice of reason.

Don’t go dark during dark times
Should a veterinary practice refrain from posting on social media during a public health emergency? No.
Just a few months ago, people were leading normal lives: eating at restaurants, spending time with friends and family, attending sporting events and shopping for groceries without fear of scarcity. In only a month or so, our entire world was upended as the global COVID-19 pandemic spread fiercely without consideration for country, race or ideology. I deeply hope that you and your family remained healthy. I’m proud to have seen our veterinary community come together through the crisis, sharing ideas, techniques and methodologies for coping with the “new normal” while continuing to give pets the care they needed. Some of the collaboration involved learning to adapt to curbside veterinary care and how to adopt modern technologies like telemedicine and online pharmacies. While these owner-centric benefits were once rare features of burgeoning veterinary clinics, they became vital necessities in a world of social distancing and economic uncertainty. I saw veterinary practices across the country band together to share emerging best practices, and I must say I couldn’t be any prouder to be part of an amazing profession led by incredibly talented and passionate people. In this vein, I want to thank you for your service as a veterinary health care provider during trying times. Your sacrifice and dedication have been nothing short of profound.

Be Socially Present

As the crisis evolved, social media took on a different feel and required a new approach to implement evolving best practices. Many veterinary clinics asked the same questions: Is it appropriate to post on social media and market ourselves during a pandemic? What should we say if we post, and what if it comes off as insensitive? What would help pet owners the most at this moment, and how would we convey it appropriately? Those were perfectly normal questions. Asking them showed an awareness of both our global environment and the needs of pet owners enduring a crisis. The pandemic led some colleagues to recommend that veterinary practices not say anything to clients via email or social media, not wanting to add to their burden or worries. However, I would recommend the complete opposite. Clients need to hear from their veterinarians when dealing with uncertainty in their lives and the well-being of their family and pets. Clients have pressing questions. “Is your practice open in case my pet has a medical emergency?” “Can I still pick up pet medications?” “Is COVID-19 transmittable to pets, or can they give it to me?” At times like that, pet owners want you to provide the insight and resources they need. When pet owners are up at night, wondering how a public health emergency will turn out, they find solace in the people and institutions that can provide leadership and a plan of action through the tumult. Google won’t always be able to answer every question in real time, but astute veterinary professionals will. Clients need you to be the resource for information on all things related to pet care. So, I urge you, please, don’t abandon them by going silent.

A Different Approach

Below, I will outline recommendations for what to share on social media during a situation like COVID-19. But before I do, I want to briefly shed more light on one more opportunity that emerged. When veterinary employees can’t be physically present — perhaps they are immunocompromised or self-quarantined — that’s a perfect time for them to work remotely and manage your social media strategy. You’ll need to provide photos taken at the practice, but your remote employees can focus on writing and posting content and engaging with your audience in meaningful ways. While posting on social media during a crisis like COVID-19 is totally acceptable, a different approach is needed. Let’s review the steps you can take.
  1. Write a letter to help clients better understand the measures you will take to care for them and their pets.
  2. Share the full letter in a single social media post instead of posting a teaser and linking to the letter on your website. Since internet speeds can be slow due to high usage and capacity issues, we want to be sensitive to the time pet owners have and create continuity with messaging. The best experience is a pet owner not needing to leave Facebook to continue reading.
  3. Ideally, pet owners should be able to read an entire letter in a single post alongside an image that shows your practice at work or that displays compassion with a pet. Label the image “IMPORTANT UPDATE RE: COVID-19.” (This can be done for free at www.canva.com.) An image like the one below will certainly capture attention.notice
  4. As far as scheduling posts, two or three times a week is acceptable. Focus on value-driven content, and don’t overwhelm pet owners with unnecessary insights or burden yourself with having to create too much content.
  5. Emphasize basic information on what you can do for pet owners. Is the hospital open or closed? Have the hours changed? What about emergencies or vaccines? Similarly, what does a client need to know about pets and animal health in regard to something like COVID-19? Do you remember when a Bronx Zoo tiger contracted the virus and pet owners frantically searched Google in April to see whether their dog or car could contract or transmit the virus?
  6. Share content that encourages the use of your telemedicine services and online pharmacy. If these features aren’t available or ready to scale, consider prioritizing such efforts. If you offer telemedicine, share an example of a veterinarian chatting with a remote client. If you offer an online pharmacy, find a photo of a pet at the door of their home as their medicine is delivered in a small package.
  7. Don’t forget to smile. When grim news appears daily, we need happiness and inspiration in our lives more than ever. Check out the photo below and tell me it doesn’t brighten your day, if even just a little.social media
  8. Use encouraging statements like this one: “We’re here for you!” Share photos of your team working and caption them with, “From our veterinary team to the health care teams around the world, we want to say ‘Thank you!’ ” Here’s another good example: “We miss seeing your pets! Though we might be offering care on an emergency-only basis, we’d love to see those furry faces! Comment with your pet’s picture below.”
The eight steps above should jump-start your content strategy and help you to focus on the areas most important to pet owners.

Responding to Critics

I caution practices to be careful when displaying images containing unnecessary use of personal protective equipment, especially in times of scarcity. I saw a few practices showing pets wearing PPE. Such an attempt to humor clients can and did attract negativity. Some practices emailed me to ask for advice on how to deal with social media backlash when clients disagreed with the practices’ current approach to care. For example, some clients didn’t agree that a team member should take a pet from a car and into the practice, or that the practice should see any healthy patients. If you’re subject to such negativity or criticism, take these steps:
  • Don’t respond right away. Oftentimes, we react negatively and too emotionally if we respond rapidly. Give yourself time to relax.
  • Review the comment and construct a response. Share the response with multiple trusted people in your practice to get their feedback.
  • Consider contacting the person offline to have a private discussion. This might be more productive than fueling an online debate.
  • Remember compassion. You and everyone around you, including clients, might have a heightened sense of emotion and urgency, often rightfully so but sometimes not. Overreacting is easy, so try to keep calm and contextualize the interaction given the situation at hand.
  • Emphasize the safety of your clients, their families, your team and their families.
  • Always keep responses simple, polite and focused on safety.
Social media is ultimately an indispensable tool to bridge any gap that comes with social distancing and isolation. Use it to express how your veterinary practice is constructively handling a situation and how you can help pets in need. Take care of yourselves and each other. I can’t wait until we see each other again at conferences, shaking hands and hugging in solidarity. In the meantime, you can follow me online at @EricGarciaFL to stay connected. Socially Acceptable columnist Eric D. Garcia is an IT and digital consultant who works exclusively with veterinary practices and speaks at veterinary conferences around the world. Learn more at www.ericgarciafl.com. He was named Practice Management Speaker of the Year at VMX 2020.