Webeditorial 6


Elissa Fry (AXON Communications)

"I found it to be one of the most succint articles on social media in health communications I have read - in fact probably the only one that helped me appreciate all of the issues in through the excellent examples you provide"
GB, Director, UK 

Social media, and “reaching” out to the masses via Twitter and Facebook, is the new medium for broadcasting information to the world. However, for many, engagement with social media sites is done in a haphazard manner and in the absence of a defined social media strategy. This article aims to answer some important questions about social engagement and ask whether it is enough to simply post a company name and logo up on Facebook to create an “online presence”. It will further look at whether simply re-tweeting what another person says on Twitter is enough for a brand to get a staunch following of active users, and examines what pharma and healthcare organisations need to do to be part of the social media landscape.

Is it enough to have a profile page?
As a healthcare company looking to communicate via social media and make a difference to online discussions, it is not just about having a profile page up on Facebook, Twitter or a specific healthcare website. An effective social media strategy is much more inherently embedded in how you engage other online users once a logo or brand message is there for all to see. However, how does a company decide who to engage, what to say, and how much should you say? Should the industry be worried about using social and digital media tools? Should it look to remove itself completely from the growing social dialogue happening online, and see saying nothing as less risky than saying something? The pharma industry has often been criticised for not being socially active enough, but are there valid concerns that warrant this and can they be addressed? First of all it is important to understand what we mean by engagement in the social media context. When discussing the meaning of “engagement”, we are not simply referring to a company just having a profile page. It is more firmly rooted in the quality of the interaction that takes place. For example, if we put engagement into an offline context, the concept might become a lot clearer. Imagine I’m reading a book, my friend comes into the room and starts chatting away. Now I’m conscious of her being there, but as my book is far more interesting I continue reading. I’m not an active part of her conversation; I would unlikely be able to respond to her in any meaningful way or give an opinion, my engagement is low or virtually non-existant. This same principle can be applied in an healthcare environment. If an online conversation is one-sided then it is not really exploiting the medium effectively. The aim has to be an interactive discussion. You might be talking and making a lot of noise on your Twitter page, but unless you are encouraging a dialogue with your website visitors, and thus if you’re not aware of what other people and organisations are saying, you are unlikely to make any real impact online.

So what exactly should “engagement” mean to you?
For healthcare companies and organisations looking to develop an effective social media strategy, understanding what is meant by online engagmement and where it adds value is crucial. To do this an organisation must identify the right approach and start putting engagment into practice. Start by identifying why you’re using it: as a learning resource, building brand presence or communicating with potential customers as an organisation. As a company or organisation wanting to make a splash in the social landscape, not only should you be providing worthwhile content, but you should also be listening to what others are saying. Add people/ companies from whom you can learn, to whom you can offer content and with whom you yourself would want to interact. Work out where you can add value; by responding to what people are writing about, offering opinion and comment on what they are saying, re-tweeting what they have said, or even posting company news stories. However, never just re-tweet or post other people’s news stories. Part of engaging other users is showing that you can take a personal interest in what they’re saying and understand the topics being discussed. And perhaps most importantly, if you are posting on behalf of an organisation, remember you are contributing to the public face of your organisation and, as such, be careful about what you say. Never, get caught up in running down competitors or their products, or worse still having a rant at journalists who might not share the same opinion as you. At best you should correct misinformation and be helpful in providing further accurate information.

Can Pharma embrace social media and, if it doesn’t, will it lose control of online messaging?
Understanding how to be socially active as a company is one thing, but successfully implementing a social media strategy is another. The Pharma industry, who are often perceived as taking a back seat in social media communications, have voiced very real and valid concerns about using social media networks. Pharma companies are concerned that online forums allow patients to share unsubstantiated concerns about new medicines, vent hearsay and communicate inaccurate information. A common reaction to this problem so far has been to ignore this dialogue, compounded by a fear that using social media could fan the flames of dissent or is simply too difficult given the strict guidelines which govern the industry. At the moment complying with best practice as set out by the ABPI (The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry) code in the absence of clear guidance limits what Pharma can do. However, could the consequences of not taking part in social communication be even more damaging? Is this form of communication really redundant to Pharma or other highly regulated sectors of the healthcare industry? Interestingly, Kevin Pho M.D, author of KevinMD.com, has criticised doctors for having been too slow to get online and losing control of online messaging. He states that by not adopting a social media policy and embracing the Internet, the medical community is leaving itself open to “charlatans” who devalue medical innovation by promoting treatment options not substantiated by any scientific fact or evidence. Worryingly these sentiments could just as easily be applied to the Pharma industry, where not taking part in conversations on Twitter and Facebook, could also effectively lead to Pharma losing control of their online messaging and branding.

However, at the Engaging & Compliant: Healthcare Communications conference last year, there were those who spoke in favour of holding onto more traditional outlets when running a public campaign. It was argued that a piece in a mainstream National newspaper, such as the Times, would be more effective in correcting misinformation then a dialogue shared on social networks or blogs. It is certainly right to say that traditional approaches to media are effective in communicating information, but are they necessarily more effective than social networking sites? If we consider statistics posted on TechCrunch last year, which showed that 190 million people are now estimated to use Twitter , with a further 500 million active users now on Facebook , compared with the Times daily readership of 479,107, it seems clear that social media outlets can reach and educate not only a greater number of people; but also an active and reactive audience available at all times of day. Additionally, statistics taken from a 2009 survey conducted by Pew Research showed that 60% of patients in the US visit the web first when looking for health information . Therefore, by using a social network like Twitter, Pharmaceutical companies can potentially engage directly and immediately with the end user. These figures suggest that social networks alongside more traditional media outlets; can be used to shape conversations and correct misconceptions as they occur. Heather Simmonds, Prescription Medicines Code of Practice Authority director, also commented at the same conference that the ABPI Code allows firms to do more online than they currently realise. She said: “The starting point is to have reference information on their websites before considering using digital comms.” Therefore, incorporating social media initiatives as part of an overall communication strategy; can provide greater opportunity to keep control of online messaging and allow companies to connect with their audience faster.

Successful social media campaigns are happening
There are Pharma companies embracing social media and effectively using it to raise disease awareness and engage with the end user. Janssen-Cilag provides an encouraging example of how a successful social media strategy can be executed and still be considered to be within the ABPI code. It recently launched a social media campaign to raise awareness of people living with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. The campaign used a creative animated film, which was made available on a purpose built microsite and also launched on the video sharing website YouTube. In addition to this, Janssen-Cilag’s UK division launched a new psoriasis disease awareness page on Facebook, which allows comments to be posted before they are checked or approved. Janssen makes clear that it is ready to comply with the ABPI code of Practice. However, as there is little guidance for digital strategy, Janssen emphasises that digital and social media campaigns can work by just having a good working knowledge of the code as it stands. Encouragingly, digital strategy and social media manager Alex Butler at Janssen UK is quoted as saying: “If you take part in a social media community then you need to be aware of the etiquette of that community,” he said. “Hopefully we will play an open and inclusive part in that community, rather than just trying to push out information.” Janssen-Cilag provides an excellent example of how effective social media campaigns can be used by Pharma. However, there is still a long way to go before social media is fully capitalised on by the healthcare and Pharmaceutical industry.

In conclusion
There is certainly scope for more Pharma companies and other organisations to start incorporating social media strategy into their PR and medical education campaigns. As we await the long anticipated FDA guidance on social media, expected sometime in the first quarter of 2011, excitement has been building about the opportunities this might offer for Pharma companies and other organisations wishing to shape the heathcare landscape. Whilst we wait for the FDA guidance, we must continue to try to be as progressive as possible. Engaging online users in the right way has the potential not only to raise disease awareness, and ensure people have access to the right information, but also gives Pharma companies and other organisations the opportunity to see what’s important to their consumer base and develop their own knowledge of consumer needs. Pharma companies may well be justified in having reservations about using social media as a communication tool, especially in the absence of clear guidance, but this should not stop them from using social networks altogether. For each generation, new technologies and new approaches to communication evolve, and each brings fresh challenges and opportunities. Social media is no different. It is only a matter of time before Pharma and the whole of the healthcare industry is compelled to embrace the soical media revolution.



1. Kevin MD.com: http://www.kevinmd.com/blog/2009/10/doctors-duty-engage-social-media.html
2. Brand Republic, Pharma Comms chief warns healthcare PR professionals of social media pitfalls: http://www.brandrepublic.com/news/1006790/Pharma-comms-chief-warns-healthcare-PR-professionals-social-media-pitfalls/?DCMP=ILC-SEARCH
3. TechCrunch: http://techcrunch.com/2010/06/08/twitter-190-million-users/
4. TechCrunch: http://techcrunch.com/2010/07/21/facebook-500-million/
5. Pew Internet; The Social Life of Health Information: http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2009/8-The-Social-Life-of-Health-Information.aspx
6. Brand Republic, Pharma Comms chief warns healthcare PR professionals of social media pitfalls: http://www.brandrepublic.com/news/1006790/Pharma-comms-chief-warns-healthcare-PR-professionals-social-media-pitfalls/?DCMP=ILC-SEARCH
7. InPharm: http://www.inpharm.com/news/digital-Pharma-facebook-first-janssen