Facing the cyberbully: Handling trolls and other Internet haters without fear

July 26, 2018
Sarah A. Moser

Does the possibility of an online attack on your veterinary practice have you hiding under the covers? Come into the light! Establish and monitor your online presence to guard against online boogeymen.


Smear campaigns are nothing new in politics. It comes with the territory. And bullying is an all-too-common topic in America's high schools. But now veterinarians are increasingly finding themselves targets of scathing online reviews, harassment and all-out threats.

This raises a number of questions: What is cyberbullying, and how does it differ from bad reviews-or actual crime? How can you minimize the chance of you and your veterinary practice becoming a target? And, lastly, what should you do if you find yourself under fire?

Here we explore these topics and give you the tools you need to protect your reputation and your practice.

Cyberbullying vs. bad publicity

In the so-called “good old days,” to escape a bully, you just ran home to mom. Yes, the bully might be waiting outside the school the next morning, but at least you could find temporary reprieve. Now bullying takes many forms, and much of it happens online.

As adults, we often don't call it bullying but harassment, defamation, threats or, simply, just someone being a jerk.

“Most of the time we reserve the term ‘bullying' for behaviors that occur among youth,” says Justin Patchin, PhD, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center in Eau-Claire, Wisconsin. “With adults the situation is more tricky. There aren't a lot of laws that look at bullying as adults. Instead we look at the behaviors.”

Patchin, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, clarifies what these behaviors entail: Is what you're experiencing a threat? Does it defame your character? Is it an intentional infliction of distress?

“There are laws that capture some of the behaviors we colloquially refer to as bullying,” says Patchin, who fields calls from adults a couple of times a week who claim to be harassed online.

Generally, for something to qualify as bullying, the actions must be ongoing, cause harm and be intentional. When someone posts bullying statements online where they can be viewed by multiple people over and over again, this is cyberbullying, which causes repetitive victimization.   

From a legal standpoint, Patchin says bullying is sometimes easier to handle when it involves students, as schools often have a specific course of action to follow. With adults, unless the action crosses a criminal threshold and you're willing to take to the harasser to court, legal recourse is limited.

Nancy Willard, MS, JD, director of Embrace Civility in the Digital Age in Eugene, Oregon, has studied the effects of bullying for more than a decade. She says that despite an abundance of programs geared toward educating the public on minimizing bullying, studies show no decline in this harmful behavior in students. And that behavior carries over to when these students become adults.

However, “there is no effective definition of bullying,” says Willard, a former special education teacher. “For veterinarians, the question is not whether a person's online posts constitute bullying, but whether your state has a statute related to harassment,” she says. “That language differs by state and, from a legal perspective, must be balanced with a person's free speech right.”

What makes veterinarians a target?

Free resource

The AVMA provides its members up to 30 minutes of free consultation with Bernstein and Associates on cyberbullying issues. Often that's all it takes to resolve a problem. But if members continue to encounter difficulty, Bernstein offers AVMA members a 40 percent discounted rate for additional services. This can include everything from writing review responses, to temporarily taking over social media for the clinic, to preparing veterinarians to deal with reporters, to helping them after a cyberbullying crisis. To learn more, visit avma.org/PracticeManagement/Administration/reputation/Pages/cyberbullying.aspx.

Reality vs. expectations: The clash between the two is at the root of almost every crisis between veterinarians and clients or animal welfare groups, says Erik Bernstein, vice president of Bernstein Crisis Management, a Los Angeles-based public relations firm that provides services to veterinarians (see “Free resource,” at right).

“The public sees veterinarians as the safeguard of every single animal interaction,” he says. “They think you should never do something that would make an animal uncomfortable. As a veterinarian, you might laugh, knowing that much of what you do for pets is not comfortable, but that's often the public's expectation. When people see things that clash with their expectations, they get upset.”

For example, after a certain procedure, a pet might not look so good, he says. People will post pictures online, complaining that the veterinarian didn't treat their pet well because of its less-than-ideal appearance. They don't realize it's part of the healing process, so they get riled up emotionally. Their expectation differs from the reality.

Also, engaging in controversial procedures such as onychectomy or devocalization can heighten the clash. “As a practice in general, if you choose to engage in a procedure that is known to be controversial, be ready for backlash,” Bernstein warns.


Veterinarians might think they make easy targets for cyberbullies, but really, every business has predictable crises, Bernstein says. It boils down to: (1) Were you or your staff members as nice to clients as you should have been? (2) Did a patient die unexpectedly or under unique circumstances? And (3) is there a billing dispute?

“These are probably the top three things that result in reputation threats that we see, and almost no one is prepared for them,” he says.

Take into account people's love for their pets and the emotions involved in their care, and you're ripe for a reputation crisis. “I've seen people get more worked up over an issue with their pets than with children,” Bernstein says.

You're in the crosshairs. Now what?

It's nearly inevitable. A bad review-or two or three-crop up. First things first: Even if the complaint is phrased unprofessionally and couched in personal attack, is there any legitimacy to it? If so, make it right. (See dvm360.com/cyberwrong for some ideas on how.)

Next, martial your community of supporters. “Hopefully your practice has developed a culture and community of people who are willing to defend you,” says Patchin. “Ask your loyal supporters to post good experiences about you online to outweigh the negative.”

Patchin says he personally had a problem with something that happened at his veterinarian's clinic years ago. The office manager didn't handle the situation well, but the veterinarian went out of his way to fix the problem. Because of that extra effort, Patchin still patronizes that veterinary practice, even though he's moved across town and it's no longer convenient. “The way they handled my poor experience makes me all the more willing to give them my support now,” he says.

Cyberbullying resources

When wandering the world wide web, know that you don't have to go it alone. The following resources aim to help you prepare for-and react to-cyberbullying, reputation management and other veterinary business crises.

For AVMA members: Cyberbullying-and How to Handle It (see avma.org/PracticeManagement/Administration/reputation/Pages/cyberbullying.aspx)

Embrace Civility in the Digital Age, online resources from Nancy Willard, JD, MS, on preventing and handling cyberbullying in students and adults (see embracecivility.org)

Bernstein Crisis Management, a public relations firm that works with veterinarians to prepare and protect their practice reputation (see bernsteincrisismanagement.com)

Cyberbullying Research Center, offering resources and guidance to protect against cyberbullying (see cyberbullying.org)

Next, Bernstein says to take stock of how public the criticism is. If a person posts a few comments on Facebook that only a handful of their friends and family will see, it's not worth you jumping into the fray. However, if the reviews are on a more public platform and others are believing faulty information and spreading it, it's time to take control.

“You want to post a public response on a platform that you control,” Bernstein says. “Do not engage in a public back-and-forth; you're never going to win a fight with a mob on their own turf.”

Your statement should be polite, professional and nondefensive. Most importantly, it should telegraph every ounce of kindness you can possibly muster. “If you're not dripping with compassion, you're done for,” says Bernstein. “Period. It doesn't matter how right you are if you look like you don't care. The way to win the public over is not to be rude. Take the high road. You can kindly and compassionately lead your readers to the conclusion that your bully is insane-but you can't say it!”

The severity of the situation determines whether you sign the post with the name of the clinic, such as “The ABC Animal Hospital team,” or with the name of the practice owner or manager. The more serious the situation, the more necessary it is that a high-ranking staff member or the owner use their own name, Berstein says.

When it happens to a friend

If you see a colleague under attack, you might naturally want to support him or her. But don't get involved in a back-and-forth exchange online, says cyberbullying expert Justin Patchin. You'll never win. Instead, consider sending a private message of support to that veterinarian.

If you do want to go public with your support, make sure you know all the facts of the situation. “The second you endorse someone, your name is attached,” Patchin says. “While I understand the desire to protect someone, make absolutely sure you're not connecting yourself to someone who has made a mistake. If they truly have done something wrong and they know it, you'll get a piece of the backlash.”

When polite responses and support from your community fail, it's time to seek outside help. “Do not underestimate the power of having an attorney send a certified letter to the person posting this stuff quoting the criminal harassment statute or raising the potential for a defamation claim,” Willard advises. “Whether you take action or not, sometimes a carefully worded letter from an attorney is all it takes to make it stop. Then offer something sweet, like a mediation service.”

Don't forget to keep any evidence of mistreatment along the way. Take screenshots and keep messages in case the situation rises to the level of civil or criminal action. And if ever you feel like your safety is in jeopardy, don't hesitate to call the police.

Sarah A. Moser is a freelance writer in Lenexa, Kansas.