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Overcoming pharma’s fear of social media

The time has come for UK pharmaceutical companies to put their heads together and overcome the industry’s social media phobia. Ask anyone in pharma how well the industry uses social media and you’ll probably get a derisory snort, at best.

For such a huge industry – one that contributes so much to the UK – the absence of almost any UK-focused social media channels is stark.

On one level, this is absurd.

Pharma companies employ thousands of staff, perform ground-breaking research and invest heavily in local communities. Amidst so much negative attention from mainstream media, why not make use of their own media channels to promote these positive contributions, rally supporters and defend themselves against criticism?

The answer, of course, is ‘compliance’.

Pharma companies are prohibited from promoting prescription only-medicines in the UK (and Europe) and are also obliged to maintain strict vigilance over the effects of their products, noting and reporting any instances of ‘adverse events’ reported by patients. The risk of accidental product promotion, combined with the resources required for adequate vigilance (i.e. monitoring), mean that it’s all too easy to say “no” to social media.

But these issues aren’t insurmountable, by any means. Indeed, a handful of UK pharmas are making forays into the Twittersphere and a few have been doing it well for a number of years.

So why the general reticence?

You certainly can’t blame the brand managers, marketers, digital leads and communicators who would gain most from using social media. I met many of them at last week’s Digital Pharma Conference in London and it’s clear that there’s widespread enthusiasm for using social media and equally widespread frustration that it isn’t happening.

You can’t blame senior management, either. My industry colleagues report that pharma board members increasingly understand the benefits of digital communications and are far more bought-in than they were a year or two ago.

You can’t even blame compliance officers within companies. Their primary responsibility is to safeguard the company, both legally and medically, not to facilitate social media engagement. And their careers are on the line if they get it wrong, so it is any wonder that they err on the side of caution?

So who is to blame, then?

Many of my associates point the finger at the Prescription Medicines Code of Practice Authority (PMCPA). It’s true that their guidance doesn’t provide full clarity (and I’m not alone in having been told, “just don’t do it” when I’ve asked about how to use social media compliantly). But the Digital Communications section of the PMCPA website is actually quite detailed and reasonably specific (even if it requires some degree of deduction).

So I don’t think it’s the PMCPA’s fault either.

The truth is: it’s no one’s fault. No single individual or organisation is responsible for helping pharma companies use social media well. It’s everyone’s responsibility.

I believe it’s time for the industry to get together and develop guidelines for what pharma can do on social media, not just what it can’t.

This won’t be easy, of course. Perhaps the industry body (the ABPI) could take the lead. Perhaps an informal network of representatives from all the major pharma companies could get together to share and agree best practice. Or perhaps a third party organisation will need to pull together an exhaustive list of scenarios and stress-test them with compliance teams.

Whatever the solution, ‘doing nothing’ is going to be increasingly difficult to justify. Pharma companies might be standing still but technology isn’t. The boundaries between traditional compliance issues and ‘digital’ compliance issues are going to become increasingly blurred.

By the end of this year, live video, bots and image recognition software will be ubiquitous features of our lives. If someone at a pharma-organised meeting uses Facebook Live to broadcast the content of that meeting – who’s responsible? If image recognition software mentions a company product despite no product being visible – who’s responsible?

For now, companies like mine can help guide pharma companies through the minefield. But we need a better, collaborative, long-term solution in place before the industry loses the ability to communicate at all.

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