Crisis communications for vet practices: a step-by-step guide


A public relations expert shares communication tips to avoid a media disaster in times of crisis

veterinary crisis communications

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Content submitted by Galaxy Vets, a dvm360® Strategic Alliance Partner.

Veterinary medicine can get very emotional both for veterinary teams and pet owners. We regularly see clients complaining on social media or even contacting local press, and sometimes, mainstream publications pick up on these issues. The number of such cases will likely increase as people use this medium to express their frustration or pressure the clinic management.

Whether you think the complaint is legitimate or not, this negative exposure can cause long-term harm to your employees' mental health and your business. So, how can veterinary practices prepare for communication crises and protect their reputation in such situations?

Prepare an anti-crisis strategy

According to the 2020 National Customer Rage Study, 55% expect a company response to a complaint posted on social media, and almost half do not get a response.1 Another survey shows that if customers are satisfied with the company’s response, 45% would make a post about the positive interaction, and 37% would tell their friends and remain loyal. A poor complaint handling, on the other hand, can lead to a dramatic increase in attrition rate for existing clients, among other damages to the bottom line, and significant expenditures to recover.2 Therefore, preparing for a potential crisis allows you to handle the situation properly and avoid negative fallout.

To create an anti-crisis strategy, first, have a staff meeting and brainstorm potential risks and situations that can produce a conflict. The scenarios might include clients dissatisfied with their bill, poor animal welfare outcomes, medical errors or misconduct, controversial behavior within the team, etc. Next, take each scenario and create an action plan for how you would communicate with the client, a reporter, on social media, and so on. Develop holding statements—a fill-in-the-blank template that will save you time going forward.

You can also structure a crisis work group where specific individuals are assigned roles, including communicating with the dissatisfied client, local authorities, or the VMA. Other roles include writing the statement, talking to other clients, and handling social media or press requests.

Ultimately, the best way to avoid a crisis is to prevent it. You can resolve many crises on an individual level; that's why experts recommend establishing a process with your customer service representatives and other team members to manage emerging issues online and offline, and effectively escalate potential crises.

Invest in your brand

Businesses with a strong reputation are more likely to withstand crises because they have built trust and loyalty within their community. So, invest in your social media, share your expertise by writing articles or speaking at industry events, continuously nurture client relationships to turn them into brand ambassadors. It will pay off in multiple ways, one instance is gaining supporters during a crisis. Maintain a list of people or organizations that can have your back when going through a turbulent time.

Employ a communications consultant

Every hour counts when a crisis strikes and it's very important to be proactive. However, understandably, you might not have the expertise, connections in the media, or resources to handle it on your own.

If possible, establish a relationship with a PR consultant or an agency that can jump in when needed and assist with your communication. For example, they can help you draft the statement, communicate with reporters or handle comments on social media and review platforms, monitor public sentiment, and act immediately. Having a lawyer is also a good idea to help you navigate the regulatory provisions and stay compliant.

Train your staff (and yourself)

Invest in media training for the appointed spokespeople in case of a crisis. Media training or coaching teaches the individual to communicate your message, better understand how reporters think and what they want, and better prepare for interviews or other public engagements. It also helps instill some effective techniques to handle difficult conversations.

As for your staff, create social media recommendations on how to behave on social media to protect themselves and your practice brand. These can include not participating in conversations when the topic may be considered a crisis because it can expose your practice to additional risks and negatively affect the employee’s mental health.

Respond to a crisis: zero hour

When a crisis strikes, gather your workgroup with the following meeting agenda:

  1. Report on the situation: what happened, the facts, and the current and potential consequences?
  2. Initial assessment: what has already been done, why, and by whom.
  3. What is going on externally? What is the public's sentiment? What are people saying? What is the impact? And how viral is the situation?
  4. What does the media know (do they know at all)? What might reporters ask? What will other people/the other side of the conflict tell them or have already told them?
  5. Who needs to hear our side of the story? Depending on the scale, it could be your employees, mass media, clients, partners, suppliers, local authorities, and other stakeholders.
  6. Short-term communication tasks: what needs to be done in the next few hours, what resources are needed and available to accomplish that.
  7. Longer-term communication tasks: what steps need to be taken in the next few days. This could be reaching out to your supporters, recording a video message from the practice owner explaining the situation, or even organizing a press briefing if the scale of the crisis requires more mass communication.

Structure of a crisis statement

Saying “No comment” is an option, but remember, if you don’t talk about yourself, someone else will. Whether you proactively manage your reputation or not, you still have one, so be a part of the conversation with the following structure:

1. What happened

Be straightforward and mention the issue directly. Describe what happened, step-by-step if needed, but make sure you don’t break the confidentiality of veterinary patient records. Be honest but not defensive or judgmental. If you don’t have all the facts on your hands at the moment, say that you are still investigating the situation and follow up with another statement later.

2. What you are doing about it

Explain what steps and actions you're currently taking to rectify the problem. Be very explicit and detailed about what you did, or are doing, to resolve the conflict with the other party. Specifically highlight what measures you will take to avoid similar situations in the future.

3. What you feel about it

End the statement by expressing how you feel about the occurrence. It's an effective way to convey humility and create a connection with the community.

Two things are important here. First, be sincere. Be human. Try to truly understand what the other side of the conflict feels and verbalize it. Second, apologize if you were wrong; there's no benefit in being defensive. However, if you aren’t at fault, don't blame the other party; stick to the facts.

This message should be adapted for each stakeholder group, depending on how the situation impacts them personally. Ideally, have it both in written and video format. Don’t forget to develop a script for your customer service representatives, too.

Good journalism requires including information from both sides of the conflict. For example, if a journalist published an article and hasn't asked about your side of the story, it is advisable to reach out and ask for updates with your point of view or even a follow-up piece. Also, when talking with reporters, avoid "off the record" statements.

A good example of honest communication at work is Adidas's quick recovery from a bad subject line. In a 2017 marketing campaign, the company made a promotional email with the subject line "Congrats, you survived the Boston Marathon!" to participants of the Boston marathon. Unfortunately, people linked the statement to the 2013 Boston marathon bombing.3

Adidas recognized the mistake after multiple customer complaints and immediately issued a public statement stating “We are incredibly sorry. There was no thought given to the insensitive email subject line we sent Tuesday. We deeply apologize for our mistake.” The heartfelt apology saved the brand from an even bigger PR disaster.

Support your team

Your employees are also your stakeholders, so think about how you can support them through this difficult time. For example, they might receive threats, be cyberbullied, or feel pressured. Have a staff meeting and tell them you understand it's an emotional time and you are there to help. Also, have one-on-one meetings with your team members, ask how you can help, then listen to their suggestions. Finally, consider hiring a mental health counselor for your team and yourself.

Educate your clients

Sometimes complaints come from mere miscommunication, noncompliance, or lack of understanding how veterinary businesses operate. Stay patient and be a trusted advisor when it comes to pet health. You can avoid unnecessary upsets by educating your clients and managing their expectations.


  1. 2020 National Customer Rage Study. Consumer Care Measurement & Consulting. Accessed July 13, 2022.
  2. The Q3 2017 Sprout Social Index: Call-out culture: people, brands & the social media power struggle. Sprout Social. Accessed July 13, 2022.
  3. Guilardi J. Adidas apologizes for ‘insensitive’ Boston Marathon marketing e-mail. April 19, 2017. Accessed July 13, 2022.
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