Shoot First, Apologize Later: Why Pharma Needs to Proceed without Social Media Guidelines

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by DJ Edgerton (@wiltonbound)

Like Tom Petty sang, the waiting is the hardest part. But is it necessary for pharma to continue holding out for social media guidelines before implementing digital strategy?

With more than 75 percent of people using the Internet, social media is an important component of business communication. Yet, many pharmaceutical companies are still behind the eight ball when it comes to online interaction and taking advantage of this medium.

Back in 2009, the Food and Drug Administration said guidelines were coming, only to backtrack on that by delaying any formal rules and dropping social media from its 2011 guidance agenda. Its understandable that without guidelines people are unsure how to proceed. But those who dont take action now may miss out on an effective way to communicate with customers.

Change is constant. There are going to be new platforms, new users and an ever-faster pace of sharing information. The marketing mix is changing and pharma cant afford to fall behind lest they be completely left out of the conversation. Physicians and patients are participating online, leaving a lot of untapped potential for marketers. And, the shift to patient empowerment has brought pharma-centric conversation to the social web. Shouldnt companies even pharma companies — be proactive in shaping messages and ensure customers have access to accurate, vetted information?

Innovation waits for no one. Companies that want to change, lead or influence need to take calculated risks and proceed even without formal guidelines. Often, a permissible approach results in delays, obstacles and stagnation. For companies waiting for permission, by the time they get it, itll be too late. Someone else will lead the pack and theyll again be reduced to playing catch up.

That doesnt mean to proceed without caution and strategic foresight, but it does mean the time to act is now not at some undetermined point in the future. Consider how the U.S. Navy has embraced social media for recruiting. Realizing that conversations are happening online, with or without guidelines, they chose to not fight it and instead promote social media usage throughout the ranks.

Uncertainty affects everyone. One of the biggest barriers with any new technology or communication medium is knowing where to start. Pharma should look at what other heavily regulated industries are doing and gain insight from how leading companies manage compliance and the resources required to navigate a complex environment. This post notes that drug companies allocated an average of $750,000 for their digital marketing budgets this year, with digital marketing budgets currently ranging from $150,000 to several million dollars.

Even for companies who are avoiding social media due to fear of regulatory backlash should have a strategy in place to monitor whats being said. While this one-way window limits the value of social media, it can provide valuable insight into the target audience and highlight future opportunities and pitfalls.

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4 Responses to Shoot First, Apologize Later: Why Pharma Needs to Proceed without Social Media Guidelines

  1. Pete Guillot says:

    Couldn’t agree more with the title. Strong internal policies and processes on managing dissemination of medical information will help lessen the risk/fear of social media.

  2. Pingback: Healthcare Social Media Week in Review: December 12, 2011

  3. David Harlow says:

    The “shoot first” approach may not win you friends among the conservative pharma cos that are holding back on social because of regulatory concerns, but I agree with your advice: begin monitoring ASAP, and start taking baby steps. It’s critical to engage in an internal policy development process with legal, compliance and regulatory at the table in order to inform the scope of those baby steps. Often, bringing in an outsider to facilitate that conversation can move people forward in a way that continuing the (non)conversation in the echo chamber just cannot. The outcome may surprise some at the table. It is possible to develop a set of guardrails defining a pathway forward, or a field of engagement (to mix a metaphor or two) that feels comfortable, even given the fundamental uncertainty here.

  4. Thanks to you, both Pete and David, for the comment.
    We truly feel that if there is education internally and clear policies set in place, that the pharma companies can truly use social platforms to their fullest advantage. We understand they’re timidity, but it’s really time to push forward.