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Social Media's Not So Scary. Now for Social Business


Pharmaceutical Executive

I must be going soft. I actually caught myself feeling sorry for pharma marketers the other day.


Peter Houston

I must be going soft. I actually caught myself feeling sorry for pharma marketers the other day.

In a moment of weakness, which you’ll be glad to know is long gone, I thought, “It really must get pretty annoying being told your scared of social media all the time.” Throwing the four words ‘pharma’, ‘scared’, ‘social’ and ‘media’ into Google brought me almost 40,000 results – the oldest in the first three pages was from November 2008, the most recent from July this year.

For five years at least, we’ve been beating on pharma marketers about their fear of social media.

Predictably, the first link is to a post discussing “Four reasons why pharma is afraid of social media”. The author, independent consultant Alexandra Fulford, recounts the usual litany of pharma failings:

• Blocks on commenting and conversation.

• Fear of contravening regulations.

• Poor internal communication of social media guidelines.

• A stubborn belief that social media is irrelevant to pharma marketing.

But wait… all of this is tempered by a distinctly cheery optimism that pharma’s social anxiety will disappear very soon. In response to being asked to speak to the question “Is pharma still afraid of social media?” Alexandra wrote, “Had I been asked this question a few years ago, indeed even last year, I would have said a resounding ‘Yes’. However times have changed and my initial response to this was ‘not anymore’”.

In a LinkedIn poll that Alexandra ran to take her network’s temperature on the issue, more than 50 percent of respondents said pharma was still afraid of social media, but that didn’t dampen her enthusiasm. She closed saying , “I firmly believe if I redo this survey next year there will be a resounding majority answering ‘No’ pharma is not afraid of social media.”

And then this - the second link on my Google results list: “Four reasons why pharma isn’t scared of social media”. What? Could the tide be turning?

The second ‘Four Reasons’ post is by Andrew Spong, academic turned publisher turned social business consultant for the health and pharmaceutcal industries. Andrew is co-founder of the European Twitter-based community Healthcare Social Media Europe and the Digitally Sick podcast and comments regularly on the state of health conversation on the social web.

From the off Andrew takes issue with the “unhelpfully homogeneous bulk descriptor ‘pharma’ used to label “all sizes of pharmaceutical company, across all territories, in all languages, for all disease areas.” Good point, well made – by lumping everything together we risk overshadowing the bright spots.

Reluctantly accepting ‘pharma’ as some sort of valid signifier, Andrew then says there are a lot of companies working positively in social media and he links to the PM Live ‘Digital handbook on social media’ for worthy examples. It highlights a varied range of current projects, from the use of Facebook to recruit for clinical trials to educational YouTube channels.

So if pharma was scared, some companies at least have faced down their fears and are getting on with it, creating social media content and campaigns relevant to their markets. And for any Johnny-Come Lately’s, there is a comprehensive knowledge bank of case studies, blogs, books and how to guides to ease their social awkwardness.

Andrew also asks what there really is to be scared of, especially with reference to the regulatory ‘threat’? He has seen little evidence of regulators hauling pharma over the coals for breaking the rules on social platforms. Any cases he has seen have been down to human error not deliberate attempts to subvert any codes of practice; he actually believes that it would be “ludicrous” for anyone to think they could get away with flouting the rules in the “highly visible context of the Social Web”.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that fear of social media might be masking a bigger problem.

Andrew writes that, if fear was the only reason for not doing social media, removing any risk would lead  to pharma happily embracing the medium. “When we consider pharma’s attitude towards social media, I do not believe that we can say this is the case,” he writes.

He thinks the problem is bigger than any reluctance to take on specific social media platforms and argues that no pharma company has shown any interest in becoming what he calls a social business. His ‘manifesto’ for social business is a must read, but to give you a flavor:

A social business does not have a corporate social responsibility department.?A social business is corporately, socially responsible.

A social business does not ‘do’ social.? A social business is social.

A social business does not look for loopholes within regulations.?A social business makes a commitment to conducting itself in such a way as to perhaps make regulations unnecessary at some point in the future.

To borrow a phrase from another of Andrew’s STWEM posts, “Business doesn’t happen ‘over there’ and community ‘over here’. Your community is your business.” In a time of increasing patient and HCP influence Andrew believes companies that don’t adopt social business practices throughout the enterprise risk “sterility and alienation” as an “inevitable consequence”.

Suddenly a rogue off-label tweet doesn’t seem quite so terrifying.

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