The sweet shop of social media is opening up to pharma firms

Healthcare and pharma companies must overcome their reticence to embrace social media.

Dr Martin Godfrey: "In the US, the use of owned, earned and paid-for social media by pharma is skyrocketing. "
Dr Martin Godfrey: "In the US, the use of owned, earned and paid-for social media by pharma is skyrocketing. "

It’s the best of times; it’s the worst of times. What to do about social media? Like a child looking through a sweet shop window, pharma companies are both mesmerized and, at the same time, self-constrained from joining the throng of consumer businesses sampling the tasty delights of Facebook, Twitter and all those other socially frosted comms channels.

In a recent survey of healthcare marketers we found almost one third of responders said they had no plans to use social channels in 2014 and of those that did, more than half were pessimistic about their likely success. As an industry, there is a strong feeling that the opportunity to connect with patients via social and digital media is passing them by.

And it’s not just the companies, it’s their agencies too. For too long the formula of pushing comms through doctors and other health professionals has been a profitable cookie jar – and if the client doesn’t want to pull their hand away, then why should agencies risk losing that which feeds them?

Of course, there are good reasons why pharma and other healthcare companies are reluctant to sweeten their comms pills for public consumption. There are significant and necessary regulatory barriers, particularly relating to the reporting of adverse events. For many senior managers, the return on investment just does not justify the costs involved in all that extra monitoring.

But is that just a cop out? True, until recently there were few guidelines on social media use by pharma companies and, as a result, many marketers ignored the open door next to them. No one got fired for not having an active Facebook presence, right?

Yet for years this industry and the agencies that support it have clamoured for the ability, like their FMCG counterparts, to market direct to consumers (DTC). The US has been at it for years, so why not Europe? In the US, the use of owned, earned and paid-for social media by pharma is skyrocketing. Surely, since no one believes true DTC promotion will ever be legalised on this side of the pond, social media are what everyone has been praying for?

Two announcements made in the past month could help drive a change in behaviour. On 16 January, the US Food and Drug Administration announced its most detailed "interactive promotional media" guidance to date and, in the UK, the Proprietary Association of Great Britain did the same for over-the-counter medicines. These guidelines actually give a green light to companies to explore digital assets as a method for building product and disease awareness and distinguish themselves as leaders. Maybe sometime soon the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry could follow suit.

As PR professionals, let’s open the sweet shop door and reassure our clients that we know a healthy, patient-friendly way forward.

Dr Martin Godfrey is managing director of 3 Monkeys Communications Health and Wellness, and a south London GP

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