Social Media, Pharma and Politics

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by DJ Edgerton (@wiltonbound)

How much of a role does social media play in influencing policymakers? And how much of a role can or should marketing play in crafting those messages for pharmaceutical companies?

Its a tough question, but before we get to it, take a moment to listen carefully. Hear that high-pitched, faint screaming in the background? Thats someone in your government relations or public affairs office horrified that youre even asking the question.

He or she is likely twitchy because, historically, pharmas messaging to political leaders and regulators has traditionally been a careful blend of extraordinarily carefully crafted facts, figures and key points, combined with periodic episodes of running around typically during the final days of a legislative session like everyones hair is on fire.

The fact is messaging to policymakers whether its a white paper or a tweet is fundamentally different, with its own set of rules and concerns. And those responsible for government relations in a large pharmaceutical operation are rightly concerned that such messaging should be tightly controlled. So against that backdrop, does the sometimes wild-west world of social media have a role?

Increasingly, the answer is yes because it works.

Elected officials are turning to social networks both as a channel to communicate with voters and as a way to stay informed about constituent concerns. Fleishman-Hillard reports that, in Europe, theres a rapid uptake of social technology by members of the European Parliament.

Findings included:

  • 69% of members of the European Parliament (MEPs) use social networks such as Facebook to communicate with voters;
  • 34% are now on Twitter, compared to 21% in the first report;
  • 44% are using YouTube as a means to reach their constituents
  • Slightly over one-quarter of MEPs are using blogs as a means to express their opinions directly

In the U.S., the Congressional Management Foundation released a survey of members of Congress (MOCs) and their senior staff on how MOCs communicate and what matters to them. When it comes to social media, they were asked the question “In your opinion, how important are the following for understanding constituents views and opinions? Findings included:

  • Of the 14 choices, traditional means such as events and town hall meetings took top spots, but Facebook landed in 7th place (with 64% saying that Facebook was either Very or Somewhat Important), above Twitter and YouTube which were 11th and 12th, respectively.
  • Conversely when asked to rank the importance of various vehicles for conveying the opinion of the MOC to constituents, 74% of MOCs ranked Facebook as either Very or Somewhat Important.

What do these findings mean? Its easier to say what they dont mean: They dont mean that social media, owned by the marketing department, will abruptly take on most government-relations messaging anytime soon its an entirely different world, requiring different expertise, and the most crucial conversations and relationships are still at the personal, one-to-one level. However, the research is also pretty clear: Politicians are embracing social media, albeit slowly, and they are using it to take the pulse of their constituents concerns.

While pharmas marketing-based social media communicators may never be in the drivers seat for this messaging, we shouldnt be surprised if, increasingly, theyre asked for directions along the way.

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One Response to Social Media, Pharma and Politics

  1. D.J.,

    I will be fascinated to see the direction this goes in, and you correctly (I think) paint a picture of two worlds slowly colliding. My two cents is this: as long as social media is owned by marketing, it’s not going to help pharma as much as it could. The fact that social media is still more often than not situated inside marketing is illustrative of a broader misunderstanding of what it is. Communication with policy makers and agencies, for example, is one are in which social media offers obvious new channels, but those additional tools will remain underutilized as long as they are siloed away in marketing. I’m not suggesting, by the way, social media ought not be used in marketing. Only that it be used elsewhere, as well.