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Permanent link  Managing your online reputation: responding to negative comments online

10/21/2009

Please welcome Rachel Zanders, a writer who will be posting to this blog from time to time. Rachel is also a contributor toGapers Block, where she covers Chicago's dance community.

This is the third and final installment in a series of articles on how dentists can protect and manage their reputation online. 

Now that you've learned a little about review websites and search engines, and now that you've established and researched your online presence, what can (and can't) you do about what all of those real people are saying about you?

First, try getting to the client before the client gets to the keyboard. Asking the patient about his experience in your office before he leaves might diffuse his desire to vent, or it might be the extra effort that encourages him to go tell the world about your polite and caring office. And of course, he might present you with some thoughtful feedback that you can act upon.

Next, utilize the online tools to your fullest advantage by staying vigilant (potentially with the aid of Google Alerts, as suggested in the previous post) and taking action when you find something that merits it. If you receive a review--either positive or negative--on a site like Yelp that allows you to reply, consider using that tool. (The tips provided in Yelp's thorough guide to responding to reviews could be applied to a business response on any similar website.) However, as a healthcare professional, you must tread carefully because of HIPAA.

Dr. Petra von Heimburg, P.C., dentist, attorney, and CDS member, points out that the gut reaction to respond in a public forum, "explaining the circumstances, [the] treatment, and laying out the reasons therefore, … often leads to HIPAA violations by the dentist because, while mounting his defense, he will invariably reveal details of the patient's protected information." When in doubt, reply privately or don't reply at all, and always tread carefully.

And finally, what to do if a client posts something defamatory? The hope is that you can find a way to work it out privately with the reviewer. But many sites won't release a reviewer's information without "a court order or a formal demand by another legal authority" (Dr. Oogle), and most will not remove comments. It's certainly worth asking the site to withdraw the comment, stating your solid reasoning, but don't be surprised if the site does not find in your favor. (Yelp's CEO Jeremy Stoppelman has been quoted as saying, "We put the community first, the consumer second and businesses third.")

If all of those efforts fail, you might start thinking litigation. After all, there's that semi-success story about the pediatric dentist in San Francisco who is currently attempting to sue the writers of a Yelp review. (See also this article and link.)

But Dr. Heimburg wouldn't advise you to take that route. First, "defamation, be it libel or slander, by definition, has to be a wrongful statement of fact. If the statement is an opinion, it is protected by the First Amendment." Second and third, "a defamation lawsuit is difficult to win … and very expensive," to the tune of "$20,000 or more." In order to win the case, first you have to prove there was a false statement of fact.  Then you have to prove that you experienced business loss that was caused by the defamation. And then you have to be able to prove the amount lost. Can you prove that ten potential patients who researched you on Yelp absolutely would have chosen you if not for the negative review? Can you prove that those ten patients would have produced an income of $2,000 each?

But don't lose hope. Your online reputation is not your enemy, and maintaining that reputation is a manageable task. The truly problematic posts should be very rare, and remember that you have innumerable opportunities to harness the power of the new word of mouth and make it work to your advantage.

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online reviews , practice management , rachel zanders , reputation , yelp ,