Can Social Media Give Big Pharma Back its Reputation? - Pharmaceutical Executive


Can Social Media Give Big Pharma Back its Reputation?

Pharmaceutical Executive

Pharma's fear of intimacy

What Canavan did seems absurd to us today because we know what happens to corporations that try to live without the press. Corporations that try to live without social media will seem even more anachronistic in 20 years' time. Just ask President Obama. Obama's 2012 campaign has sunk a fortune into the real power of social media. Not the neolithic display advertising that Big Pharma supports, and certainly not those actors reading bad scripts while pretending to be patients. How do you get voters—many of them disillusioned and demoralized—to donate and vote and to persuade their friends to do the same? Hundreds of young volunteers in the Chicago HQ are working on Operation Vote, a project that uses the intimacy of Facebook and Twitter to relate to voters as individuals: its targets include the transgendered—even chefs in restaurant kitchens. If you are a chef with a sexual identity crisis, you will be amazed at how well the President appears to understand the issues of cooking while wearing size 14 heels. Marilyn Katz of the Obama campaign says, "You have millions of young voters who don't get their news from TV but from social media and friends online. You have to penetrate each one of those venues. In the same way, older voters may hear something on TV but are much more likely to vote depending on what their neighbors are doing. It's those intimate type of conversations, among networks of friends, that get you out of your house and into the voting booth."

Robin Hood Tax
If people can be persuaded to get excited about voting again for President Obama, can they be persuaded to care about how healthcare dollars are divided up and whether there are incentives for innovation? Definitely. Unfortunately, however, it tends to be the other side doing the persuading. If you can bring yourself to "like" Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) on Facebook, you can join their 500,000 FB friends. You could also join the 1,500 people who like their YouTube video protesting the Novartis stand on patents. Or you could sign just up for their Twitter hashtag, #stopnovartis. If you can't hit the button to friend MSF, no problem: you can look at the 12,000 FB'ers who like Avaaz's campaign to "stop pharma killing thousands to make millions."

There are, of course, risks in this kind of relationship building: friends sometimes talk back. Amongst Merck's followers on Facebook is an obsessive poster named Michelle Petersen (from Petersburg, IL) who puts up comments such as this: "Merck can't wait to get a hold of those babies and force poison into them." Overall she ends up looking crazy while Merck sounds pretty reasonable and trustworthy. It's a pity that only 3,000 Facebook fans get to see it—over 40,000 people still work for Merck in the United States alone. Assume that only 50 percent of them are on Facebook; assume that each has below the Facebook average, with about 100 friends who they don't know from work. That would amount to a network of 2.5 million people.

Given that both hard-pressed industry employees and social media are growing in credibility, there is a clear opportunity to bring the two together to create a vast new network of "employee ambassadors"—that is, people who talk about the company online in a quasi-official capacity. The fall in CEO credibility makes it more important than ever to prepare employees to advocate on the organization's behalf. A recent Edelman study shows CEO credibility sinking 12 percent in the past year, while the same study shows the credibility of "regular employees" and "a person like yourself" increasing 16 percent and 22 percent respectively. These numbers may reflect the growing trend of distrust for corporate messaging and slick PR.

Swabhimaan India
Oddly, Pfizer, the current owner of the AHP inheritance, may be doing this better than others. The company has over 50,000 likes on Facebook, although only 600 people are talking about their online presence despite an admirably clear policy on the posts they remove from their Facebook page and why. The number of followers is driven in part by Pfizer's innovative blog, "Think Science Now," which gives its scientists and their guests a forum to pose big thoughts. As the company says, "we remain the only large pharmaceutical company empowering our colleagues, those closest to the science, to use social media to talk about the innovative work they are doing." Maybe it is also due to the frequent updates from the employees who volunteer for short-term assignments with international development agencies. But you will search in vain for anything about the views of the company or its people on differential pricing, the reliance of many US states on charity to treat sick people with HIV, or on any other big policy issue.

Compare this with the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), which has about 220,000 likes on Facebook and about 18,000 people talking about its policy agenda. These are serious discussions, such as "You've Earned a Say," a national conversation to ensure that Americans have a voice in the future of Medicare and Social Security, led by the question, "If you had a moment with the President or a member of Congress, what would you tell them about Medicare and Social Security?" But the conversation is broad and attuned to life in the street, as evidenced by a recent stream around the fact bite that 760,000 Americans over age 65 had undergone elective cosmetic surgery in 2011. It's that mix of gossip, news, and serious debate that gets the adrenalin going around this 18,000-strong community. And wins the attention of the policy cosmetologists on Capitol Hill.


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