Don't be a Facebook failure

Judicious use of your clients' favorite social media tool can be a bridge to your clients — just make sure any embarrassing facts or photos are hidden from clients and colleagues
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May 01, 2010

For those of you who've been living under a technology-resistant rock, Facebook is the world's largest social networking Web site. The service added a whopping 200 million new users last year, and if you're a veterinarian under the age of 40 then you probably have a Facebook page. The site is changing the way that people communicate in this country — and in our profession — and its influence is always expanding.

Facebook offers both opportunities and risks for veterinarians. It can help expand your clientele and bond with them in a way that few even dreamed of 10 years ago. It can also spell the end of your personal privacy and unleash dramatic daily distractions that register on the Richter scale.

Below is my handy survival guide for making your way in the social media jungle. Don't travel to the Internet without it.

Professional connections

Facebook has more than 350 million users, so networking is enormous. I keep up with at least half of my veterinary school class, dozens of student leaders in the Veterinary Business Management Association, specialists to whom I refer frequently, business consultants, other doctors at work, and a significant percentage of the faculty at my former College of Veterinary Medicine.

Because of Facebook and my ready access to all these people, I can ask and receive valuable answers to questions, drive great distances without having to pay for a hotel room, avoid eating alone at conferences, share opportunities, elicit sympathy when cases defeat me and smile when I see that others share my frustrations and insecurities. Just last week a Facebook friend and colleague from veterinary school contacted me before interviewing at the practice where I work. When it comes to staying in the loop and keeping connected, there really aren't many opportunities greater than Facebook.

Client connections

Associates, wouldn't it be great if your new clients thought about you every time they checked their Facebook page? They would see the profile picture of you holding a big fish you caught, or wearing a lobster costume from Halloween or throwing ping-pong balls. They would know what was on your mind: that you're not impressed with the new flavor of microwaveable Hot Pockets, or that you're a total failure at yoga or that you're now in a relationship. They would see your photos, the images of you that your friends post (even the ones you don't recall being taken), and all the comments from your old college friends. Wait ... maybe that wouldn't be so great.

As social media continues to increase its influence and scope, we can all expect to see more of our clients online. Pet owners are increasingly cavalier about asking their veterinarian to be their Facebook friend. From their perspective, this type of access makes a lot of sense. What could be better than posting an insightful and probing question like "My dog is acting funny. What should I do?" directly on the page of one's own veterinarian? When your clients invite you to be a friend, you should probably have your answer ready. Your main options are:

  • Go for it (with extreme caution). Bring some or all of your clients into your life and build that relationship, but don't ever forget that they're always watching. Consider organizing them into a select "client" group so you can control what they see on your page, and take this as an opportunity to bond your clients to you for life.
  • Offer a polite "thanks, but no thanks." If the client is one you know well and don't want to risk offending, you can let her know that you are flattered by the invitation but that you use Facebook exclusively for close friends and family. Just remember that anyone can see how many friends you have, and it can be hard to explain why 500 other people fall into the "close friends and family" category. If you don't recognize the person's name, or recognize it as a client with whom you don't have a solid relationship, then simply ignoring the request may be the best course.
  • Create a second identity. I have a friend with separate personal and professional Facebook pages. He uses his professional page to stay in touch with clients. He keeps his personal life personal. The downsides to this approach are that you must be vigilant to prevent your personal life from creeping (or being carried by others) onto your professional page, and if your professional page only has a few friends, your clients may wonder if you're a loser. You will also have to generate regular content to keep people from forgetting you or wondering why they ever "friended" you in the first place.
  • Default to hospital policy (or propose one). Your hospital may not allow doctors to have clients as social networking contacts. Most hospitals don't have guidelines, but other industries are writing social media policies. Sometimes, a reason to say "no" that appears out of your control is a real blessing.

Team member connections

Unlike with clients, this needs to be an all-or-none decision. Few choices have the potential to generate as much drama in your professional life as making Facebook mistakes with staff. Before you make the important decision about whether to connect with staff members, consider the following:

  • Staff members will be able to write whatever they want on your page.
  • They will see the comments and photos that your friends put on your page, quite possibly before you do.
  • They will read deeply into your posts. If you write that you had a hard day at work, you should be prepared to explain why. Staff members will ask or, if you're unlucky, they'll assume they know what — or who — darkened your day.

Finally, including some staff members while excluding others is a big mistake. You don't have to invite the entire staff, but if they ask, you should be consistent and always either say "yes" or "I'm sorry but I don't friend staff members."

If you want to keep your personal life personal, the best thing to do is say "no" to all current staff members. This is fair and easy to explain. If you are going to accept staff, prepare yourself to learn a lot about them (possibly more than you want to know), and consider adding them all to a staff "group" so that you can control privacy. Finally, once you've added staff members as friends, never forget that they're watching.

Facebook is the 800-pound gorilla of marketing, networking and communication in our society today. It's becoming a part of veterinary medicine because our clients are making it so. The approach to Facebook that's right for you will be based on your personality, your goals and priorities, your privacy concerns and your level of energy and interest. Whether you jump in and participate actively in all that Facebook has to offer or observe the Facebook universe passively from the sidelines, some forethought on your part and a healthy dose of discretion will help to protect the fragile balance between your personal and professional identities.

Dr. Roark is an associate veterinarian in Leesburg, Va.