All’s Not Quiet On The Media Front

The media can be both positive and negative in the veterinary practice.

I’ve been censored. My work in other media has been unceremoniously dumped on back pages at times. When I talk brands, industry niches and corporate responsibility, I get heavily edited. Sometimes the legal department gets called in for a consult. But I don’t resent it.

After all, somebody’s got to keep the loudmouth in line.

I’ve learned the hard way. Writing about certain topics means your editor gets a call from microchip companies, over-the-counter flea-product manufacturers, or once—inexplicably—the Taser brand stun gun people (when I suggested that their product might be less than safely employed as a puppy park accessory).

Editors get all jumpy about these things. No one likes a bullying phone call from PetMeds’ legal peeps after they get their panties in a bunch over an online pharmacy smackdown in USA Today.

Uneven Relationships

Then there are the advertisers.

A certain pet food company turns up its nose at advertising with any work I author at a large online pet portal (not that I ever wrote anything uncomplimentary about its products). Another, however, will happily do so, in spite of more than one bit of negative writing with respect to its product line. How to fathom the mind of a marketing department?

Some companies have invited me to boondoggle roundtables and seek my opinion. The cynical may suspect foe-hugging Machiavellian tactics in advance of some future blast, but who can blame them? Not me. It’s all part of the dance we do when voicing our opinions or protecting our brands.

All these scenarios are to be expected whenever opinions appear online, in print or on TV. It’s universally uncomfortable, this back and forth between media and manufacturers/marketeers.

But it’s necessary, right? Veterinarians who do media work—and there are more of us than you might suspect—live with this uneasy reality whether they appear on monthly segments with Oprah, write opinion pieces in USA Today or offer a weekly column in their neighborhood paper.

Veterinary Naysayers

Recently, I was presented with a twist to this standard stakeholder approach when it was brought to my attention that I’ve been “abusing my bully pulpit.” But it was none of the usual suspects who brought forth the charge. It was a few fellow colleagues. Ouch!

To paraphrase: When you voice your opinion, consider that you’re making it difficult for all the rest of us to hold our own opposing points of view. You’re only making our job harder!

Yes, it’s true, I’ll allow. When I offer opinions on the overuse of sedation for behavior problems, declaws as a routine item in kitten packages, our profession’s failure to police our own at the level of the state boards, antiquated vaccination protocols and our denial of the need for post-op pain relief, for example, I know I make life harder for veterinarians who I believe would undertreat behavior issues, declaw routinely, get away with serious ethical breaches, over-vaccinate and fail to treat pain.

But what’s a media veterinarian to do? Especially one who’s often asked to render opinions. Is it not our role to advance well-reasoned and well-referenced arguments regarding our personal take on the issues at hand? Is it not then inevitable that we would oppose a percentage of our colleagues’ points of view?

I’ve heard from plenty of you with respect to previous columns here. Consider letters and e-mails regarding my treatment of specific pet insurance companies, veterinarians in cahoots with pet stores, the dearth of food animal veterinarians, colleagues who refuse to refer to specialists, etc.

Public Discourse

As with other columnists’ work, it’s fair for you to criticize. It’s your right to disagree. It’s your role to engage us in debate.

But somehow, all bets are off when it comes to presenting veterinary issues in a more public forum—somewhere your clients may read it, for example. As in this case:

In a blog post on acepromazine’s overuse as a sedative, I got hit squarely between the eyes with this (and I paraphrase): Veterinarians like you give our clients ammunition when it comes to offering drugs we’re comfortable with. And another perspective: Yours is no better than any site that would trade on anesthetic fears for certain breeds. (Never mind that I did cite literature and interviewed specialists for the piece.)

So, too, for a Miami Herald article that advanced the concept of lower frequency vaccine protocols. After its publication, several South Florida veterinarians wrote to reprimand me for putting them in a bad position.

But is the dissemination of information on what’s already a well-accepted practice or a newly researched topic automatically suspect because it conflicts with a certain slice of the veterinary pie’s point of view?

I don’t believe so. After all, is it not our role to offer a balanced perspective along with our opinions so readers can make up their minds? Even if we do offer unpopular opinions, is it not up to us to push the envelope of what’s acceptable based on how science informs us?

Or don’t we credit our clients with the ability to make an informed decision? Maybe we’d prefer not to be questioned at all, or maybe we prefer trust be granted as a matter of course instead of earned.

DVM Pundits

Perhaps my position as opinionated fire-stoker colors my perspective, but I see this issue becoming more contentious as veterinary information is more readily disseminated by an increasing number of veterinarians writing books, making guest appearances on “Ellen” and advising Martha Stewart.

It’s like the age-old Internet debate in which we assert that mo’ information is not necessarily mo’ better. Only this time the threat comes from within our ranks.

Never mind the ad men and the brand managers, you say, it’s the larger veterinary community we media vets should be held accountable to. Prickling as that may be to some of us, I agree that’s as it should be.

But that doesn’t mean we’ll relinquish our so-called bully pulpits or offer bland commentary in lieu of spicy debate. And if you don’t like it, I tell my detractors, go and start your own blog.

Patty Khuly, VMD, MBA, is a small-animal practitioner in Miami and a passionate blogger at Dolittler.com. She earned a business degree from Wharton in 1997.

This article first appeared in the December 2009 issue of Veterinary Practice News.

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