An Open Conversation

Sep 01, 2009

Big Pharma is slowly moving into the communications equivalent of the black hole: social media. While some companies are dabbling in blogs, others are posting videos to YouTube, and an intrepid few are writing text message–length posts on Twitter or Facebook. Will this scattershot approach add up to a coherent strategy that delivers measurable results from both a commercial and reputational point of view? Pharm Exec surveyed the field and found a range of modest programs that should eventually create big advantages for the companies that choose to engage in social media.

But to really "socialize" means having a two-way conversation—something that pharma has generally been wary of. After all, companies face a high-risk regulatory conundrum in responding to customer inquiries regarding adverse reactions, off-label usage, or even general conversations in the blogosphere. The challenge is finding ways to engage customers without crossing the FDA. "It doesn't have to be as scary as companies think, because there are a lot of ways to control the message," says Google's Healthcare Marketing Manager Neha Patel. "As long as [pharma companies] are controlling the information they put out, they can play in that arena."

So how can pharma make sense of it all? There are two schools of thought: throw everything against the wall and see what sticks, or wait and see what works and then create a "me too" version.

Sounds like business as usual in pharma.

Pfizer: Time to Change

The speed and scope of communication on today's Internet is truly amazing. For example, about a year ago, the keyboard player of a seminal folk-rock band The New Bohemians, was killed after he harassed a neighbor while taking Pfizer's smoking cessation drug Chantix—along with other, illegal drugs and alcohol, a mixture that is warned against on Chantix's label. The neighbor panicked and shot the keyboard player through the door.

Within days, dozens of posts began springing up on blogs and discussion forums about Chantix causing depression and suicidal behavior. Whether or not it was true, a few vocal citizens were changing public opinion. But Pfizer chose to not address the issues as they surfaced on the Internet, focusing instead on the traditional press. In fact until recently, pharma has seemed at a loss about how to interact with consumers who communicate in real time through online social networks. But finally, that's begun to change.

"We looked at social media a year ago and noticed that the conversation was happening with or without us," says Ray Kerins, vice president, worldwide communications at Pfizer. "I don't think there's a question any more as to whether or not we have to get involved in this space. We have no choice."

Kerins, who wasn't heading up Pfizer media relations during the Chantix crisis, says that the company is rolling out its social media in stages, and doesn't want to overstate its position. The first order of business is a new Twitter feed that's being used to push out corporate communications, including information about the pending Wyeth acquisition as well as its US discount drug program.

However, Pfizer remains cautious about jumping on board with a new technology that might not even be around in a few months. In recent years, industry buffs have seen a number of major social media players whither and/or die. Friendster gave way to MySpace, which paved the way for the current giant Facebook. But who knows if Facebook will be around in a year or if it will be crushed under the weight of the "Next Big Thing?"

"We need to be smart, and track technology as it goes. Instead of playing catch-up—which is where we are—it's important to figure out how we can be involved in a medium before it becomes a huge deal," Kerins says. "We want to have a real dialogue, and we want to do it in a way that is not us pushing, but listening and taking feedback and adjusting."

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