FDA needs to meet industry halfway on social media guidelines

Are the Food and Drug Administration's recurring delays on releasing social media guidelines turning into the PR industry's version of Samuel Beckett's classic play, "Waiting for Godot?"

Are the Food and Drug Administration's recurring delays on releasing social media guidelines turning into the PR industry's version of Samuel Beckett's classic play, “Waiting for Godot?"

The absurdist play involves two characters, Vladimir and Estragon, who await endlessly and in vain for someone named Godot to arrive.

Now you might want to substitute PR agencies and highly regulated marketers for Vladimir and Estragon, respectively, and the FDA's social media guidelines as the phantom Godot.

The FDA was originally supposed to release the guidelines in late December; at the time, the FDA said it would release the guidelines by the end of the first quarter.

However, earlier this week the FDA punted yet again. The agency said that it remains committed to crafting social media guidelines but could not provide a timeframe “for the issuance of our guidances due to the extensive work and review process.”

The statement doesn't exactly inspire and may leave PR pros in the lurch when it comes to ramping up social media marketing on behalf of their clients.

It is one thing when drug companies deploy direct-mail campaigns or run one-dimensional TV spots (which both include the fine print), but it's an entirely different animal for drug companies to sell their products via “tweets” and Facebook postings, which are designed to foster community and dialogue.

With the current void in social media guidelines, communications pros will have to continue to apply existing FDA regulations on how drug companies promote products via newspapers, magazines, television and radio.  But with an ever-growing number of consumers and patients getting health information online, applying traditional media tools to digital media is going to become increasingly problematic. 

John Bell, global managing director of Ogilvy's 360º Digital Influence (and former president of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association), shed some light on the issue when he told PR Week  that in trying to craft the guidelines the FDA may be sacrificing the good for the great.

“It shouldn't be up to a [federal] agency to articulate down to the nth degree what the marketplace should be,” he said, adding that the FDA needs a “sense of urgency” with regard to social media guidelines. “They should come out with the guidelines.'

He added: “In an era of open government, we should know what they're wrestling with and what's the process? It would be better for the marketplace if we understood where the FDA is on the journey and when we should expect some type of deliverable.”

And even when the guidelines are released, they are unlikely to be the last word.

“Anyone who is looking for a comprehensive answer out of the guidelines will be disappointed,” said Mark Senak, senior VP of Fleishman-Hillard, who heads up the agency's healthcare practice and is also author of the “Eye on FDA” blog.  “Some questions will remain unanswered.”

Senak said that moving forward the onus is on PR agencies to thread the needle between providing their clients with effective ways of penetrating social networks and not running afoul of regulations. “Agencies need to consider not so much the medium, but is there the potential that the regulatory wire will be tripped because of the communication,” he said. “It's combining traditional guidelines with common sense about how to use social media.”

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