Resistance to the social networking revolution has been particularly high amongst pharmaceutical industry professionals, though now it seems that more and more are coming round to the idea. Interestingly, it’s not only the pharma elite that are jumping on the bandwagon; so too are government agencies and, most notably, the FDA.
The networking tool currently at the height of this phenomenon is Twitter. A December 2008 report by HubSpot estimated 5000 to 10000 new Twitter accounts were registered each day, whilst the latest report claims that the rate has accelerated so dramatically that “it has reached a point where it is futile to attempt to generate a flat growth rate number.”
The figures speak for themselves and, what started out as another social networking channel, is seemingly becoming a necessary tool for social and professional communication.
Unsurprisingly, pharma professionals have approached social networking tools with caution, particularly because of the highly regulated nature of the pharmaceutical industry. “Companies did not want to fall foul of the regulations by using tools, such as Twitter, to disseminate information about their activities, just in case they say something that they shouldn’t, by which time it is too late to control its spread amongst the public,” Faiz Kermani, Pharmaceutical Technology Europe (PTE) Editorial Advisory Board member, told PTE. “It’s an odd mindset really because the people being cautious with social media tools in their days jobs are the very same people who love them in their home lives,” he added.
A quick browse through Twitter, however, shows that the tide is changing; not only are the pharma heavyweights testing the water; even the FDA is getting involved. The agency is using Twitter to send out important announcements, such as product recalls, and it is also tentatively experimenting with another type of social media in the form of its ‘FDA Transparency Blog’.
“It is very interesting to see the FDA adopt Twitter. In a sense, this helps add further legitimacy to social media as having a rightful place in the field of healthcare,” said Kermani. “The FDA has its own reasons for needing to be more in touch with the public; this should, however, help it argue the case that it is becoming a more transparent agency. Companies who have not yet explored Twitter will no doubt feel more comfortable knowing the regulators are willing to give it a try,” predicted Kermani.
According to Kermani, one of the problems the pharmaceutical industry has at the moment is that it has a very poor public image in spite of the good work that it carries out. “Social media tools provide a quick route to the public ear, which can be used by industry to portray itself in a positive light without the negative media interpretation,” he explained. “This direct route can, however, also be a double-edged sword because there is a perception that it is hard to control this route of communication. The industry prefers to evaluate what it is saying before it communicates with the public. Unfortunately, in most cases, that makes it too late to be of interest to the public, particularly because it may have already been covered elsewhere by a journalist with their particular interpretation of the news.”
Although an open communication platform, such as Twitter, might struggle to bear the weight of such a heavily regulated industry and carry the responsibility that pharma has for doctors and patients, whilst still facilitating meaningful discussion, professional users are beginning to see it for what it is: an effective platform for fast communication and profile-building. A news story by BNET Pharma offered the theory that: “compliance officials and lawyers think it’s harder to get into trouble in 140 characters than it is with the endless sheet of blank web space that is a blog.”
However, many pharma companies that have taken their first steps into the social media scene are still doing so rather tentatively. “Companies should craft clear guidelines for employees on the do’s and don’ts of social media usage professionally and privately,” advised Silja Couquet, founder of Basel-based social media coach Whydot GmbH, in an article authored by Advanstar’s European Editorial Director, Peter Houston. She says the best way for pharma to find out what’s possible is to start using Twitter internally to get a feel for how it works and what it can do.
“There is no doubt that companies will adopt social media as a core part of their public dealings, but more time is needed for them to feel comfortable with it and determine how best to use it. It’s also important to have the right employees who can make the best use of these tools,” said Kermani. “Some companies have been more ambitious than others in using social media tools and it is the examples provided by these pioneers that will persuade the others to follow,” he concluded.