Facebook last week announced a policy change that is having a significant impact on the ability of pharmaceutical companies to communicate via the social network.
The new policy forbids brands from withholding the 'Comment' function on brand-focused Facebook pages. (Official brand product pages remain the exception.) The move is designed to encourage dialogue between businesses and consumers.
“[Users] see Facebook without comments as a billboard instead of social media,” said Jack Barrette, CEO of WEGO Health.
Open-forum discussion on Facebook presents risks for heavily regulated companies. Users who "like" a certain Facebook page are permitted to post medical advice, alternative medicines or negative side effects, for example.
Most companies have added disclaimers to their Facebook pages and retain the right to monitor and delete inappropriate comments. However, posts don't have to be pre-approved to go live, which can prove problematic for companies that are heavily regulated.
"It's difficult to monitor in real-time, but it hasn't been found to be overwhelming," Barrette said.
In response to the new policy, a handful of drug companies have opted to avoid the risk and deleted some of their Facebook pages. Companies that have pulled such pages include AstraZeneca's page devoted to depression, Bayer's “Strong at Heart” page, Purdue Pharma's “In the Face of Pain” and a handful of Johnson & Johnson pages focused on psoriasis, ADHD, and rheumatoid arthritis, according to The Washington Post.
Still, a relatively small percentage of pages have been pulled, so far.
“We had at least 60 Facebook pages, and the vast majority were not affected because they already allowed commenting,” said Bill Price, VP of media relations at Johnson & Johnson.
Steven Campanini, director of corporate media relations at Merck, agrees. “We've been carefully monitoring the social media landscape for a long time," he said.
The FDA has yet to release formal guidelines regulating how pharma companies can appropriately navigate through social channels.
For now companies must “utilize marketing knowledge to build internal guidelines,” said Ray Kerins, VP of corporate communications for Pfizer. “When this guidance does come down, you don't want to be starting from ground zero.”
Many pharmaceutical companies are trying to turn the challenge into an opportunity.
"There are incredible potential public health benefits to using electronic media in healthcare," said Jeffrey Francer. assistant general counsel of PhRMA, in a news release.
He added that, if used appropriately, social media can serve as a powerful tool to educate and converse with consumers and professionals alike.
“We do a lot of wonderful work that helps a lot of people around the globe,” said Kerins. “This is a chance to show people what we're doing.”