Firms fill void left by lack of clear social media guidelines

In the regulated world of pharma and finance, shaping messages in the digital landscape can be a legal gauntlet, particularly when advisory bodies are slow to provide clear guidelines.

In the regulated world of pharma and finance, shaping messages in the digital landscape can be a legal gauntlet, particularly when advisory bodies are slow to provide clear guidelines. In response, PR firms are helping businesses maneuver this murky area of communications.

"In the absence of guidelines, you have to create your own best practices," says Rohit Bhargava, SVP of the digital, strategy, and planning group at Ogilvy PR.

The Food and Drug Administration has delayed putting out rules for such communications. Last year, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority published an inaugural set of guidelines it plans to reevaluate this year. However, as these guidelines develop, companies know digital and social media PR represents a competitive edge right now, not later.

For instance, to what extent are companies responsible for what consumers say on third-party websites such as Facebook? How can they engage them from one platform to another? What constitutes an adverse event and how should communications be monitored on unbranded and branded websites? Or how can companies communicate lengthy legal disclaimers of products and services on social media where text space is limited?

Careful treading

"This raises all sorts of questions yet to be answered by the FDA," says Jonathan Kopp, partner and global director of Ketchum Digital.

Despite this, firms advise their regulated clients to be digital and have a social media strategy, but to tread carefully and tactfully.

When Bhargava holds social media workshops for regulated clients, he often brings along a lawyer for counsel.

Kopp holds digital and social media training for Ketchum clients in this space.

"While there is a latent period, let's do training for it," he says. That includes developing protocols, policies, and fostering a cultural mind shift among corporate communications employees on how they can constantly think about social media on their company's behalf. "When they are ready to go out, they can do it in a coordinated fashion," says Kopp.

Following an FDA public hearing in 2009 on the use of social media to promote products, Edelman published a white paper offering its own perspective.

"Companies should monitor the Web extensively to see what consumers are saying about their products and, when appropriate, correct misinformation," the report says. "Manufacturers should train communications and marketing staff to respond to user-generated content in much the same way call-center operators are trained to answer patient questions and sales reps are trained to talk to physicians."

Engagement challenges

But the process of engaging people on social media is rarely linear. Instead, it can be a maze of cross-platform link posting and communication on unbranded, underwritten sites to and from third-party social networks.

"It's more complicated than somebody posting something and forgetting about it," says Hill & Knowlton global digital practice leader Andrew Bleeker.

Last August, pharma company Novartis received a letter from the FDA saying a Facebook widget posted to one of its product websites misled customers and failed to communicate risk.

Emily Downward, SVP of digital health at Edelman Digital, says she has clients who are afraid to move forward aggressively with digital and social media PR efforts. Instead, they are waiting to learn what not to do from the warning letters that are sent out.

Even so, if direct communication is suffering, Downward still advises clients to at least monitor and listen to social media because it offers insight into consumers.

PR pros agree that misinformation about companies and their products can spread quickly in the digital landscape, which is dangerous because today's consumers do much of their product and company research online.

"The risk of not engaging is somebody else defining your brand," warns Downward.

Notable events April 2009

The FDA sends out 14 letters to drug makers warning them about misleading and mis-branded paid Internet advertisements

September 2009

The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) creates a social media task force made up of FINRA staff and industry representatives Source: FINRA

February 2011

The SEC sends letters to investment advisers and firms requesting information on social media use Source: Investment News

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