Social media: can we live – or survive in business – without it (or them)? - Veterinary Practice
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InFocus

Social media: can we live – or survive in business – without it (or them)?

Gareth Cross welcomes the beginning of spring and turns his thoughts to the world of ‘social media’, its place in the modern world, and the danger of being dragged into neighbourhood gossip…

SPRING has finally arrived,
heralded at home by the
appearance of a large amount of
frog spawn in our pond and the
appearance of a strange yellow
thing in the sky.

It is
amazing how the lift in the
weather has a
similar effect
on people’s
spirits: staff, clients and patients all feel better for it.

I remember on one farm visit I
happened to be there the day a large
dairy herd was let out into the fields
after their winter incarceration in the
yard. The large black and white girls
did a hop, skip and a jump into the
field looking more a flock of spring
lambs than 600kg milking cows.

The start of spring also makes you
think about the year ahead and
beyond. Many of us in the practice
have been off on the first CPD trips of the year. One of these was an
updated version of one I attended a
few years ago on social media and
general practice.

When I attended it I had never used Twitter, Facebook or other
suchlike social media. I listened as
veterinary marketing gurus explained
the shiny appealing newness of social
media and younger, keener IT experts
explained their use to us all.

The version this year was attended
by a colleague who summarised it as
follows: “Apparently we can’t live
without it, but we in practice will all be
too busy to do it for ourselves. Luckily,
though, we can pay the people
lecturing to manage it for us.”

There is no doubt about the
power, omnipresence and the influence
social media has on, well, social lives
of people. There is also no doubt that
if you have a mass market product to
sell and the resources to trawl and
process the social network data, you
will be foolish not to get involved, but
for vets I still am sceptical.

My personal test is to ask myself,
“Would I be interested if my dentist
had a Facebook page or Twitter
account?” or “If someone wrote
something good or bad about my
dentist on a social media site would
that make a difference to me or many
others?”

Obviously, good and bad news has
a value, but I think we are in danger of
getting dragged into the level of
neighbourhood gossip to promote
ourselves or defend ourselves if we
attach too much importance to social
media.

Before Facebook existed, how
many of us went to the pub every
night to talk loudly about how good
the practice was, or eavesdrop at every
conversation we heard in the
supermarket ready to chip in if we
heard anything about us we didn’t like?

We briefly had a Facebook page in
the practice but quite soon my
prediction that it would be abused by
nutters came true and we gave up on
it.

The social media experts in the
veterinary world remind me of the
first phase of alpaca keepers in the
UK. Everyone liked alpacas, they are
very appealing and lots of people
wanted them.

The next big thing…

They were to hobby farmers the next
big thing and suddenly people thought
there was some money to be made.
However, the only way to make money
is to breed and sell them to other
people who then end up with a field of
attractive but financially redundant
animals.

The social media gurus trying to
sell their services are like people with a
field full of pedigree alpacas: they’ve
invested their time and money in them
but realised that the only way to make
money is to sell more alpacas/social
media management services on to
someone else who will then end up
with a financial white elephant. Or
alpaca.

Whilst on the subject of alpacas, a
colleague on a recent DEFRA TB
testing course was informed that no
one knows how many alpacas are in the UK, exactly where they are and, by
the way, they probably transmit TB.

I also asked him to press the
DEFRA staff on the current state of
affairs regarding the outsourcing of
TB testing to the private sector, to
pass on to readers. The only response
forthcoming was: “They never tell us
anyway, but it’s not happening any time
soon.”

One thing new media has proved
useful for locally is locating and
tracking the progress of stray cats. I
was accosted in the local newsagent
this week by a client to ask for an
update on one tom cat who has
become something of a local
Facebook celebrity.

He is a fine black specimen with
huge cheeks like Bagpuss and he
seemed to be running several homes at
once. Consequently, many “owners”
have started to track his progress
through our practice and then into the
local animal rescue centre via a local
lost cats Facebook page.

Harassment of vets

So good PR can be had; however, I
have also been looking into some fairly
distressing accounts of harassment of
vets by local communities using
Facebook and other similar sites.

There is at least one Facebook
group specifically dedicated to
“exposing” vets judged by individuals
to be below standard, with some very
hateful and damaging diatribes against
vets. Imagine a link to that popping up
on your Facebook wall.

A quick scan through some of the
UK veterinary forums shows that this
is not just a US phenomenon. The
amount of data going through social
networks has been described as a “fire-hose spray” of data.

Trying to tame social media to suit
you is a pretty huge task. It can just as
easily turn against you. I think for now
we will stick to providing a good
service to pets and clients and let
GCHQ deal with the data. We get
most of our new clients via the social
networks anyway, just not the virtual
ones.

After writing all that, however, I do
confess I use Facebook, LinkdIn and
Twitter: sparingly and mainly for clubs
and family stuff. However, my attitude
to it is still best summed up by Sandi
Toksvig’s introduction to the News
Quiz
on Radio 4 recently: “Welcome
to the show, and for those of you
listening at home you can follow the
show on Twitter using the hashtag
#getalife.”

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