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Pharma Surges Ahead in Online Communications


It may surprise some working in the industry, but pharmaceutical companies, in particular those in Europe, rank among the world’s best online corporate communicators, writes David Bowen.

It may surprise some working in the industry, but pharmaceutical companies, in particular those in Europe, rank among the world’s best online corporate communicators, writes David Bowen.

Big Pharma has emerged as among the top online performers in the latest FT–Bowen Craggs Index of web effectiveness, which examines the ‘web estates’ of 81 of the world’s largest companies.

The Index provides a profile of corporate web performance against a range of criteria, such as quality of website construction, level of integration of social media channels, how well corporate messages are presented, investor relations content, accessibility and content for journalists, and quality of content aimed at customers.

It revealed that six of the top twenty companies are from the pharma industry, which places it not only ahead of sectors such as financial services or retail, but also technology. Beating companies such as Google, Apple, HSBC, Samsung Electronics and Coca-Cola, pharma now appears to be setting the benchmark for global conglomerates’ digital strategies.

Roche rated as having the most effective web estate of all the pharma companies, coming fifth overall in the Index. The company was praised for the style of its websites and their attention to detail, and was found to be particularly good at conveying the company’s messages online, clearly and concisely laying out its ethos, aims and strategies.

Novartis came second to Roche and eighth in the Index overall. Novartis.com was hailed as an effective hub for the global estate, with good signposts to other sites and contact information.

BASF was ranked third, and ninth overall. The company has created a new social media subsection to replace its old rather and confusing one. By replacing the microsite with a simple dashboard and directory of its social media activity, it has eliminated duplication and mitigated the risk of confusion among media professionals and other visitors to its News & Media Relations section. In doing so it has issued a reminder to others that simplicity and clarity trump complex ‘bells and whistles’ when it comes to integrating the corporate website and social media content.

AstraZeneca’s top twenty website has grittier, more realistic images of people on their homepage, creating an authentic feel, which is so far rare in pharma. Sanofi, also in the top twenty, was rated highly for excelling in its website construction, and also in serving investors.

Why the change?

So why are pharmaceutical companies suddenly doing so well, and how are they managing to maintain their web estates as effective communications assets?

The answer is partly to do with painful historical experiences, and from a resulting willingness to learn.

Johnson & Johnson offer a good example of recent proactive digital crisis management. Their “Personal Apology (Just For You)” campaign, which was shortlisted in the PR Lions at the Cannes Lions Creative Communications Awards festival, saw customized songs and music videos sent to 65,000 women to apologize for O.B. tampons disappearing from shelves due to a “distribution problem.” Thousands of unique names were recorded so that women could have the tune sung to them and recipients could also download a coupon at the end of the song.

The personal apologies were a huge hit, generating more than 1 million Facebook Likes and 1.8 million Twitter impressions, turning a potential PR disaster into an expression of good will and increased popularity and affection for the Johnson & Johnson brand.

As well as using social media and corporate websites to be reactive to potential PR disasters, companies can also be proactive in using digital communications to promote the human side of the company. AstraZeneca opened the door to real-time conversations on social media by hosting a Twitter chat about patient prescription programs using the hashtag #rxsave. The purpose was to get people talking about the company’s Prescription Assistance Program, but also to listen in order to help find ways to reach more patients eligible for it. The Twitter chat engaged hundreds of participants, including patients, patient advocacy groups, healthcare professional and industry observers, and demonstrated AstraZeneca’s willingness to engage and demonstrate transparency.

The importance of digital governance

One of the fundamental problems with corporate web estate management is the tendency for different parts of a company to go off and create their own digital realms with their own look and feel. Very often this leads to a disjointed and frustrating experience for users, who are told different things by different departments. That’s if they’re able to navigate from one part to the next at all!

The European pharma companies that are at the top of the FT Bowen Craggs Index have strong digital governance. They comprise a mixture of control and encouragement; it’s not actually in people’s interest to “go off and do their own thing”. The companies may be run as silos, with different departments and disciplines, but their digital teams need to rover across these and try to pull things together. There is also a sense of involvement from senior management; digital teams who have the backing and buy-in of people at the very top will be hugely influential.

Websites can clearly reflect the management decision making or internal politics within a company; they can reveal fault lines or bad attitudes across the company as a whole or within its different departments. An un-coordinated website, with different departments doing different things, can show that departments aren’t talking to each other.

One of the most improved companies in the Index this year is Pfizer, which moved up eleven places from its previous ranking and is commended for integrating its country sites better and boosting its career sections and social media channels.

But Pfizer still has more to do. The Pfizer site has a separate careers section, which means that the tight centrally controlled system of managing digital content has broken down. Previously, people looking for jobs could move seamlessly from the recruitment section to the rest of the corporate site, but now it is much harder to find additional information. It’s a sign that the HR department has acted unilaterally to achieve its goals, and displays a lack of unified decision making within the company.

Nevertheless, the pharmaceutical industry should be commended for its attitude and approach to digital communications and website composition and content. But there is always room for improvement. Web estates help companies to better their reputations. In a world where reputation is everything, effective online corporate communications is no luxury — it has become vital to success.

David Bowen is Senior Consultant at Bowen Craggs & Co, a global web effectiveness consultancy.

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