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Why every dentist should care about Cecil the lion and resolve to be social in 2016

Feb. 26, 2016
Dentistry equals sadism: Regardless of how you feel about Dr. Palmer's actions, that's the message that dental consumers got in 2015. Here's what you can do about it in 2016.
Cecil the Lion. If you are a dentist in America, you likely watched in horror, as my husband and I did, as one man's vacation idea gone bad ballooned into one of the biggest events in the 2015 news cycle.

"There's enough ambient distrust of dentists as it is," my husband said to me. "Events like these make it really difficult for the dental industry to move forward."

A few dentists took the opportunity to distance themselves from the controversy with cheeky billboards saying, "By the way, we don't kill lions," but the vast majority of American dentists just kept on with business as usual and waited for the controversy to die down.

Not us.

For four years, my husband and I have been telling stories on social media about our dental practice in McMinnville, Oregon. We believe that humanizing dentistry and sending our message of caring out into the world isn't just good for business-we believe it will ultimately change how people view dental care.

We follow the maxims of best practice for social media: Be helpful. Be inspiring. Be fun.

READ MORE | So you shot a lion and you are public enemy No. 1: Now what do you do?

We'll keep going until the word "dentist" is no longer synonymous with "inflicting pain." And because we believe we can change the world—or at the very least, our world—we launched an idea that we hope will empower dentists to tell their own stories in 2016 and beyond. We're calling it "The Social Dentist." It's a platform to teach dentists how to be social and tell their own stories in the age of social media.

To really understand what's at stake, let's look at how the Cecil story changed over time. First, there were the facts of the event: An American dentist and trophy hunter paid $54,000 to lure a beloved lion out of a national refuge in Zimbabwe, hunted it for 40 hours, killed it, skinned it, and beheaded it. The news flew so fast and far because it paired two ideas: "American dentist" with "lion killer," reinforcing commonly held stereotypes about the profession: Dentists charge too much for their services, and dentists enjoy inflicting pain.

News stories are never static, and the Cecil the Lion story developed as the weeks pressed on. First, a horde of angry and anonymous Internet activists stormed Dr. Palmer's Yelp review page, reducing his ratings to one star overnight. At the same time, Twitter exploded with a tirade of hateful messages for Dr. Palmer. But it didn't end with him. Two competing ideas presented themselves alongside the hashtag for #CeciltheLion, which was ascendant on the site for a full two weeks after the event. A small number of users coined #NotAllDentists to praise their own dentists, while a far larger number shared their dental horror stories with #WhyIHateDentists. Within a few weeks, the Washington Post set out to investigate why dentists earn more than other medical professionals in many markets and what can be done about it.

Cecil didn't go away. Year-end reports from major news organizations like Newsweek listed Cecil as a major event of the 2015 news cycle, and Dr. Palmer keeps popping up in places like monologues on The Daily Show or as a character on Saturday Night Live.

READ MORE | An open letter to Dr. Palmer from a 'patient'

In other words, a new generation of dental consumers, the millennials, got the message in 2015 that dentistry equals sadism.

We could write a book on the worst-practice decisions that ruined Dr. Walter Palmer's dental practice, from the way he cavalierly posted images of himself hunting with his shirt off to the ill-advised and unapologetic email he wrote to his patients in the aftermath of his trip to Africa. But we'd rather take some lessons from Cecil and resolve to help dentists get better at being social.

I think we can agree that as a whole, the dental industry needs help with social media. Furthermore, we believe that outsourcing blog posts and Facebook updates to third parties just won't cut it anymore as a way to connect authentically with patients.

To fix this, we conceived of a series of e-books and helpful digital products that put the power of social media back into the dentist's hands. We started two months after the Cecil controversy with The Social Dentist's Guide to Blogging: How to Market Your Practice, Win Lifetime Patients and Change the World Through Your Dental Blog. We found that existing social media books could only take dentists so far in their social practices. In this first book, we set out to teach dentists and their staff members how to conceive of a dental blog like a magazine that readers can't put down.

We followed a month later with The Social Dentist's Guide to LinkedIn: How to Connect with Professionals, Establish Your Authority, Build Your Dental Practice and Gain the Trust of Your Patients. Now it's 2016, and here's our resolution: We're writing the ultimate guide to creating content for your practice Facebook page-not just a "how-to-post-an-update" article. We want to demonstrate how to create content that actively shapes your business. Meanwhile, we've been creating additional resources to help make social media easier for dentists, like an annual blog planner, a blog-post promotion checklist, and a questionnaire for identifying who among your staff should manage which social media accounts.

If you you're not telling the story of your dental practice and shaping how your patients feel about you, someone else will do it for you-in a review, in a tweet, or in a Facebook comment. We invite you to resolve to become a social dentist in 2016. Ensure that 2016 becomes the year of #WhyILoveMyDentist.

Emily Grosvenor Diesburg is a magazine writer in McMinnville, Oregon, and cocreator of The Social Dentist books with Adam Diesburg, DDS.