5 ways to manage your online reputation

In the days of social media, negative online content could have far-reaching legs and a devastating impact on a physician unless it's managed efficiently.

By — Posted Sept. 12, 2011

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Even if some physicians themselves are not online, their names, comments on their style of practice, and complaints or compliments about them probably are.

All of the online content devoted to a particular physician could negatively impact his or her reputation, and subsequently his or her business, if steps aren't taken to manage that content and -- when necessary -- defend it. This is often referred to as online reputation management.

Online reputation management has become big business, as evidenced by the number of radio and online ads offering to help physicians. But physicians can manage their own reputations, help build positive ones, and prevent negative content from turning into a crisis that needs to be dealt with professionally.

As quickly as online content can spread, especially in the age of social media, experts say online reputation management should be a key component to any business plan.

"The best defense in these cases is good offense," said Scott Sobel, president of Media and Communications Strategy, a Washington-based public relations firm specializing in crisis management.

Christian Olsen, vice president of Levick Strategic Communication's digital and social media practice, said social media has changed the dynamics of reputation management, because in addition to physicians communicating with their patients, their patients are now communicating with one another on social media websites.

For most physicians, there are five simple steps they can take to manage and maintain a good reputation online. For others, managing their online reputations may require more time and expertise than they have available.

One: Google yourself

Olsen said many make the mistake of thinking that because they don't have a website or are not involved in social media they are not online. "It just means your voice is not being heard in a conversation about you," he said.

The first step in managing a reputation is knowing what there is to manage. Reputation management experts recommend that physicians conduct Google searches on themselves at least once a month, preferably more often. Things can spread quickly online, so seeing what content is there on a regular basis will help doctors stay ahead of a potential crisis. It's also a good way to see what positive things are being said about you, which you may be able to build on.

Steven Wyer, managing director of Reputation Advocate Inc. and author of the book Violated Online, said physicians should set up alerts on Google and Yahoo. These alerts work by registering keywords, such as a name, that the search engines will use to comb the Internet looking for any new mention of those keywords on blogs, websites, online forums and other sites. When it finds a new mention, it will send an email detailing where the keywords were mentioned, what was said and a link to the website.

The mistake many physicians make, however, is to not include all reasonable variations of their name in an alert, Wyer said. For example, John Smith, MD, could have several variations, including Dr. John Smith, Dr. John C. Smith, Dr. John Smith, MD, etc. Alerts for a handful of those variations should be set up.

Two: Correct mistakes and false information

The easiest places to start are websites that show up high in Google searches. Those sites are likely to be physician finder or rating sites or health plan physician finders. The sites often include wrong or outdated contact information and incomplete biographical and educational history.

Many of these sites give doctors the opportunity to edit their own profiles, which they should do by bolstering the information that is presented and highlighting positive aspects. Experts say physicians should complete their CVs by adding professional achievements such as awards and published articles. They also can use the forum to talk about their style of practice and what patients can expect from them.

Dealing with false or inflammatory content can be trickier, Olsen said. How physicians handle false or misleading information on a site could make a situation worse, depending on how it's handled. They should do what they can to correct the information without being too aggressive, he said. One suggestion is to acknowledge the problem and then ask the author of the content to take things offline to find a resolution.

"Respond in public, but ... definitely don't play it out in the open," Olsen said.

Wyer said most websites have posted terms and conditions. If content on the site clearly violates those terms, a request can be made to the website's site administrator to have the information removed. The same request can be made of content that violates privacy laws or Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act regulations. Insults are generally not violations, but Web posts that contain personal identifiable information would be considered violations.

Three: Create your own content

The best way physicians can steer conversations in the direction they want, or help hide the conversation they hope no one sees, is to start the conversation themselves. Experts say doctors can do this on many online venues: personal blogs, websites and personal social media pages, which all tend to rank high in search engine results.

If you already have done a search on yourself, you would know which sites are ranked high and need to stay high, and which sites you may want to push down in the results. Posting information on sites that generally rank high in Google searches, such as physician finder sites and LinkedIn profiles, will help push other content down in the search results. The farther down the better, as 90% of people won't go past the first page of search results and 99% won't go past page 2, said Noah Lang, director of business development for

Wyer said it's important for physicians to own their own name online, starting with claiming their profiles on finder and review sites. On most physician profile sites, a link asks if you are the doctor being profiled. If you are, you can register with the site to take ownership of that listing and edit it as you see fit.

Owning your name could include buying website domains under the physician or practice name, creating social media pages and creating blogs in your name.

A misconception, Wyer said, is that all of these sites must be managed daily. If a physician wants to establish him or herself as a blogger, the goals and strategies are different. But simply populating the sites with basic information such as the doctor's bio, contact information and a link to a website, combined with the appropriate keywords and elements to ensure good placement in Google searches, doesn't require daily or even weekly maintenance.

Four: Embrace constructive criticism

Studies have found that an overwhelming majority of online reviews of physicians are positive. But even if a doctor does not achieve unanimous positive reviews, that's all right, experts said.

Sobel says having only simple and positive reviews will raise red flags. "You want to look for good but balanced comments. There will always be someone unhappy," he said. But it's important for patients to use reputable sites that rate doctors fairly.

Physicians should find a handful of rating sites they trust and direct patients to them. They can do so by having staff verbally tell patients about the sites, hang signs in the waiting room that list the Web addresses, and hand out fliers at the check-out desk.

Five: Address actionable items

Sobel said many of the things patients complain about online are things physicians can work to change immediately and publicize online.

Knowing what the "hot button issues" are among patients -- long waits, lack of response or slow responses, and leaving a message for the doctor and having someone else call them back -- and addressing those things in practice and online will go a long way toward improving your reputation. Part of managing your online reputation is managing how you come across online addressing those issues.

Lang said physicians should broadcast online when changes have been made due to complaints.

Sobel said a physician's website not only can be a source of the positive information they want patients to find but also can serve as a way to respond to negativity in a positive way.

When a physician's reputation has taken a beating, Sobel said, ignoring it and hoping it goes away is not a sound option. Besides their knowledge of medicine, physicians' reputations are their highest commodity, he said.

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Think twice before taking legal action for something online

Things read online might be blatantly false and even harmful to a physician's reputation. But in most cases, taking legal action may make the situation worse.

When opinions and reviews include false information that would constitute libel or defamation, legal action might be warranted, said Craig Newman, a New York-based attorney. But he warns clients to think long and hard before filing a lawsuit or drafting a cease-and-desist letter.

Because of the many exceptions, libel and defamation are very hard to prove in a court of law. Therefore, physicians take a risk when filing a suit, bringing more attention to the matter, and not being able to prove their case.

Noah Lang, senior director of business development at, said it's generally better just to let things live and die. A physician could send a cease-and-desist letter, but then a blogger could post that online, only exacerbating the issue.

However, experts said legal action might be warranted -- including a call to law enforcement -- if a physician sees something threatening to family or staff members as well as the physician.

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Here's what to look for in a reputation management firm

Not all reputation management firms are created equal. If a reputation management company doesn't handle things correctly, a bad situation could be made worse.

First, experts say, a good reputation management firm will have a good understanding of the physician's business. If it specializes in services for physicians specifically, the better.

Scott Sobel, president of Washington-based Media & Communications Strategies, said a good firm will have a relationship with a reputable lawyer or law firm and have some knowledge of public relations. The firm also should be familiar with First Amendment and copyright laws.

While a good firm should never talk about specifics of a prior case, it should be able to talk in general terms about the techniques it will use, such as search engine optimization, Sobel said. A firm that talks about committing some of the same actions it should be protecting clients from, such as verbal attacks, libel or defamation, also should be avoided.

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