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When a dentist kills a lion: a lesson on reputation management

Lion in Hwange NP

By now, you’ve undoubtedly heard about Dr. Walter Palmer, the dentist who killed Zimbabwe’s beloved lion, Cecil. If you’ve somehow missed this social media firestorm, catch up here.

I’m not going to talk about what Palmer did, why it was wrong and what type of punishment he deserves–that debate is playing out in full force on Twitter and Yelp. What I want to talk about is that Palmer is a dentist.

Have you noticed that nearly every headline, much of the social media commentary and even signs held by protesters point out that Palmer is a dentist? Even Jimmy Kimmel noted his occupation before getting choked up in a, now viral, clip from his show. Had Palmer been an accountant or a salesman, would his profession be mentioned nearly as much? I’m not sure. But we will never know because Palmer is a dentist.

One thing is for sure, Palmer’s life will never be the same.

Assuming your reputation as a dentist is still intact, let’s explore the greatest lesson you can take away from Palmer’s life-ruining mistake.

There is no such thing as a private life
The Internet has changed life as we know it. You can no longer expect to live in a professional sphere during working hours and then go home to your private sphere where no one will know what you do. We’ve written before about maintaining your online reputation; Palmer’s story is an extreme example of how transgressions in your personal life can follow you to work.

As far as Facebook and Twitter are concerned, you don’t have to post something on social media for it to infiltrate your life as a dentist. In Palmer’s case, he hasn’t been charged with a crime, but he’s still a national news story. Again, this is an extreme example, but try to scale it down to your own community. Let’s say a friend posts a photo of you having too much fun at a party where alcohol is involved. Unless you know all your friend’s 500+ Facebook friends or Twitter followers, you don’t know who is looking at this photo of you in a very unprofessional setting. The fact is, you can’t control it and the statute of limitations on reputation-damaging social media posts are indefinite at best.

So what do you do?
If you find yourself in a compromising situation, you’ll need to take quick and decisive action. The best way to do this is to have a plan thought out before it happens. Of course, each situation will require its own thoughtful consideration, but you should have a general idea of how you’ll handle it. Most PR experts agree that you should act quickly, encourage a dialogue and stay true to your brand messaging. As a dentist, your brand probably has something to do with patient well-being, service and possibly public health.

Think of your reputation as the hallmark of your brand as a dentist and protect it. Here is an article on social media crisis management–something to think about now and especially if you own a practice in the future.

What not to do
The very best way to avoid these situations is to act responsibly whether you’re wearing your white coat or not. If you have a hobby that is taboo and can sometimes flirt with legality, like Palmer’s hobby, you may want to reconsider what you do for fun. It’s not that you can’t hunt or own a gun or enjoy a cocktail once and a while, but you need to keep things in moderation and resist the urge to share online–not every activity warrants a post on Facebook or photo on Instagram. Anything taken to the extreme can make the Internet turn on you, and it will certainly scare away your patients.

Think of yourself as someone running for public office. Would any of your past decisions or actions become fodder for the media if you were to run for Congress? Anything the media can find, your patients can also find on the Internet.

Take an online inventory of yourself, but more importantly, take a moral inventory. You are joining a highly respected, prestigious profession. I don’t know about you, but every time a news anchor says “a dentist” after Walter Palmer’s name, I cringe.

Respect yourself and the profession by making good choices. If you would like more tips on reputation management, I recommend this post.

~Kim Kelly, publications manager

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  1. Rakesh says:

    You missed a point how every dentist and dental student is taking heat because this guy decided to do something stupid. The Washington Post is questioning our incomes.

    1. Rebekkah Merrell says:

      Hi Rakesh! The sad fact is the author of that article from the Washington Post is a 2012 Yale graduate. If you google search him, you can find his personal resume complete with his address and phone number. I definitely would not want my personal information posted all over the Internet! I believe the point here is that in the Information Age, we need to be careful about what we publish and the image it can portray. We obviously cannot control what all of our colleagues do, but we can have control of our own actions. His article actually infuriates me, as well, because of its inaccuracies. Like Kim mentioned, I think we all have learned a valuable lesson on what bad PR can do for your reputation and the reputation of your profession regardless of the truth.

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