Managing Public Perceptions
Promoting the Human-animal Bond in Veterinary Practice
Thomas E. Catanzaro, DVM, MHA, FACHE, Diplomate American College of Healthcare Executives

A common marketing perspective is "What is in it for me?" - this seems to be the common attitude within our society today. In Chapter 5 of "Veterinary Healthcare Services: Options in Delivery", from Blackwell Publishing, we shared persuasion marketing and sample marketing programs; these were all internal programs, since that is where the profit really lies for a veterinary practice. Internal promotion means increasing a client's veterinary I.Q., and it is an important aspect of any quality veterinary practice; in the lack of knowledge, all decisions are based on price. It was never high costs, it was low perceptions of value; quality practices have staff-centered client education programs. The subject of public perception is often different from just bonding the client to your own practice. Public relations is doing something for no personal reward while subjecting yourself to the slings and arrows of the public and your peers have to love it!

If one were to judge the condition of the nation's veterinary healthcare services by front page and evening news headlines, the prognosis would likely fall somewhere between awful and nonexistent. Yet that is precisely how the public, with less than half being regular veterinary healthcare consumers, forms its opinions. It is an exceptional veterinary practice which understands that it needs 5 to 6 positive exposures to get a knowledgeable client to say "yes", and an uninformed client requires more than twice that many exposures before accepting a new service or program.

Media sources have always played a significant role in molding public opinion. Veterinarians used that to their advantage in the "good news" era that was marked by announcements of a veterinarian finally coming to a previously void area of town. Those stories focused on the facilities, the veterinarian, and the success and miracles that mark the history of veterinary medicine. But now a new veterinarian is not usually considered newsworthy and the news columns and air time need "sensationalism" to keep their "market share"; the result is generally negative stories or comedy relief inserts that no longer persuade the public of our worth. Interestingly, veterinary nurses and their wellness programs now can make the media sit up and take notice (and run a "news piece"). There is a secondary problem emerging, and that is the veterinary medical "averages" being published in the literature. The survey samples, which are generally statistically invalid, often include many struggling new practices, therefore the data reported is expense heavy and income light. An average has been defined as "the best of the worst" or "the worst of the best" in the past, but with a poor sample, an average may just as likely be substandard and contradicted.

Every veterinarian owes it to his/her practice, their clients, and the public to become a spokesperson in their local market area. The super savvy veterinarian also mobilizes his staff at the grade schools for "infomercial" demonstrations. This opportunity may be speaking to a women's club, a Lion's group, Rotary, Optimists, at schools, to PTAs, or in any other public forum. The lessons learned by others are invaluable and some are listed below to help you and your staff improve public perceptions of veterinary medicine.

 Do your homework - before you start, you need to know what programs have worked in similar situations, and lessons learned from those that got derailed. Use the Delta Society, CENSHARE, American Association of Human Animal Bond Veterinarians (AAHABV), and other Internet sources to have a spectrum of programs that could be used. Know what has worked, and what has not worked, so you can appease the concerns of others.

 Formulate your communication objectives before you seek an interview. An interview is your opportunity to make a case or a point. Prepare single objectives with alternative points and use the interviewer's questions as opportunities to return to your own agenda.

 Learn as much as you can about the audience, or the media source and the interviewer, before going into any meeting. If possible, link yourself to one of their vested interests by identifying a positive personal fact or story.

 Anticipate opposing points of view and expect the audience or interviewer to play "devil's advocate"; conflict sells in the media, especially on sensitive and emotional issues. Work out your responses to difficult or controversial issues during your pre-interview research.

 Avoid being suckered by a sensationalizing interviewer or heckler. Be insistent about finishing your answer if you feel interrupted. However, maintain a professional demeanor and avoid exploding at stupidity or rumors. Since the public is a "feeling" audience, they will usually forget those informative answers and remember only the inappropriate behavior.

 Never say "no comment". It is a red flag for reporters to delve deeper into a story. For the public it is sometimes viewed as an admission of guilt. Instead, offer to get back to the group or interviewer at a specific time with an appropriate response.

 Don't be afraid to ask questions --especially of print reporters. Find out what kind of story is being developed; what is the angle, approach, or objective? In which publication or section of a publication will the article appear? Are other persons being interviewed about the same subject and who are they? What are the deadlines?

 Be brief and succinct -- broadcast news is offered in small components. A good "sound bite" captures the idea and heart in ten seconds. Keep your points to a few brief sentences and make sure that your main points stand out clearly. Try to use your interviewer's name in your responses.

 Speak in clear, direct, concrete language. Veterinary medicine has its own jargon and while your colleagues may understand it, the general public will not. Always explain abbreviations and terms in context.

 Tactfully refute misinformation and falsehoods but do not attack or take affront. There is nothing wrong with saying "Excuse me, Harry, but I believe there is another way of looking at that issue." Make sure that you correct a misleading statement in an informative and helpful manner.

 Avoid a litany of statistics. Very few people can deal with number after number, especially when there is no interpretation of the data. If you offer a statistic, be sure to round it off and be willing to interpret it for the interviewer.

 Avoid defensive responses. If the facts point a dark picture, don't deny them. Keep your communication objectives in mind. Think through a non-defensive answer and know the details fully. If the issue is technical, do not revert to a professional vocabulary but rather be ready to simplify the issue to terms that will persuade the public opinion toward your point(s).

 Know your position. As veterinary issues emerge, evaluate how each local market medium will treat an issue. Past history and national trends will help determine the media's position. Decide how you want to position yourself on each critical issue.

Proactive media relations demand time and commitment. It requires the veterinarian to become a semi-public figure. It forces development of a point of view which almost certainly will elicit opposing opinions. It is not without risk. Safer media relations that are less risky include scheduling speakers into the local association meeting that have a public interest topic (e.g., Lyme Disease, Feline Aids, Restoring Puppy Kisses, establishing a *Pet Library" at the local elementary school, etc.) and just inform the media that a nationally known speaker will be in the community addressing a issue that is of interest to the general public. Even this is risky because the presentation may cause embarrassment to local veterinarians who do not participate in the local professional organization, or to those practitioners that are not willing to match the state of the art which the media will report to the public.

There are also significant rewards. Media awareness translates to increased visibility for the profession and any practice willing to "go on the record"; the financial cost is virtually free. Each interview is an opportunity to put forth a positive message and increase the public awareness toward veterinary healthcare. Spokespersons that prove to be available, reliable, and quotable become valued media sources. The interviewers are more likely to listen to trusted sources and call on people they know when it is time to tell the good news or local position.

Most important, the proactive professional spokesperson (e.g., stay linked into Veterinary News Network media training and resources; visit can have an enormous influence on how the news is reported and, therefore, what the public hears and reads. Perceptions can be changed. The degree to which they will rests with the local veterinary leadership in each media market area. Paraphrasing a famous past president, "Ask not what your Association can do for you, but rather, proactively seek what you can do for your Association."

Selling The Sizzle

Advertising sells the "sizzle" of the bacon, not the fat content. In public relations, it means selling the excitement or security of the benefits to the community provided by the veterinary profession. In a specific veterinary practice, "selling the sizzle" means ensuring every staff member believes in the new program. They can see how the pet will benefit, and in some cases, how they will benefit for supporting the new practice effort. Internal marketing means creating the awareness in the staff member of the preexisting wellness need, convincing them that the service or product is really contributory to the animal's wellness, and then ensuring they believe that the practice's delivery of the service or product is a real value to the client and pet.

The training program should not be dictated; it needs to be facilitated. The discussion needs to start at where the staff member's mind is at, not where the veterinarian's perception may be. The best way to start this effective teaching discussion (review Signature Series monograph, Leadership Principals & Skills, VIN Press, for greater discussion of effective teaching) is to create a "discovery" situation for the staff. A well planned discovery serves two functions:

 First - creates the awareness of the need

 Second - determine where the staff's awareness really is

Let's look at a simple example, such as the staff meeting question of, "What is visceral larval migrans?" If an adequate response comes quickly, a follow-up inquiry can be made, such as, "Does anyone know what percentage of intestinal flu in children was misdiagnosed because of visceral larval migrans?" The Center for Disease Control has shown that over 25 percent of some past intestinal flu children groups were actually caused by visceral larval migrans. Now for the kicker questions, "what causes visceral larval migrans" and "What can we do to help prevent children from becoming infected?" You will be surprised by the replies, since they usually encompass public relations (e.g. school presentations) as well as marketing commitments (e.g. more fecals) by the paraprofessional staff. Why do you think the Center for Disease Control and Prevention did such a major public relations information push on strategic deworming a few years ago?

Discoveries do not have to be proactive questions, they can be retrospective experiences that need staff evaluation, such as, "The cash close out hasn't balanced once this week, what can we do to get better consistency?" or "The AVMA says good practices have over 60 percent of their new clients each month coming from direct referral, where are we?" If the answer does not match, the next question can be, "What have we done or not done that we need to change to modify this trend?" and "How can we measure this without a great amount of extra paperwork?"

The discovery process, and the internal marketing techniques discussed above, take longer than telling the team what to do. This is initially a fact of life. The subsequent fact of life is that a discovery discussion leads to belief and the need for retelling is minimized. It sometimes is also the cause for a staff request for additional training and information, but this also cements the belief into position for the practice's success. Take the time to internally market and train and the long range benefits will follow. Try it, you'll like it!

Past Experience

Consumers without relationships with a healthcare provider or facility are more likely to look at price differences simply because other trade-off variables are not known. This is a characteristic of human nature; decisions are made based on the knowledge at hand. Remember the old adage, "When people don't know what to do, they do what they know"......This applies to human healthcare as well as veterinary practice selection, pet dietary programs, animal dental hygiene, and a host of other informational factors that we are supposed to share with clients on a regular basis.

Past experience moved your practice to where it is today, but it won't get you into tomorrow. Leadership and vision is required as we proceed into this new millennium. In the case of consumer targeted marketing, leadership means learning to be more comfortable with being out of control; the team should be able to carry the practice dream effectively into tomorrow, responding to client wants and needs.

One-third of healthcare consumers who have a regular provider say they would switch if they could find one who was of equal or better quality but less expensive. This is best answered in part with "appropriate pricing" for husbandry services (e.g., dental cleaning of Dental Grade 1+ mouths, in Risk level 1 animals) delivered by skilled and caring staff A slightly smaller group was willing to switch for better hours or a closer location if quality would not decrease. A third group, which is becoming larger every year, would switch because of inconvenience and the extra time involved in waiting for an appointment.

Speaker Information
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Thomas E. Catanzaro, DVM, MHA, FACHE, Diplomate American College of Healthcare Executives