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The social media bomb

By Fabio Gratton

When it comes to the topic of pharma’s use of social media, we’ve been having this same conversation for over a decade, with more fervor of course since the 2009 hearings, and it’s pretty much the same music and lyrics. Lots of dancing, a little dating, but no real relationships. Translate: we haven’t made a heck of a lot of progress.

The problem here, in my opinion, is not FDA or its inability to keep promises on delivering guidance. No, I think the real problem is that when people in our industry hear the words “social” in the context of any kind of communication activity, it’s like reading about some country mining “uranium” – everyone gets freaked out. The mind goes quickly to adding the words “enriched” and ultimately concluding there must be weapons-grade plutonium and therefore nuclear bombs. So before you know it, we’re in DEFCON 5 on the brink of a nuclear war, and everyone runs for the bomb shelters. Only in this case our “Fat Man” and “Little Boy” are “Off-label Discussions” and “Adverse Events.” I know it sounds extreme, but it pretty much describes the essence of where this industry has been. And frankly, I think most folks are still in their bomb shelters while the world moves on without them.

I think as long as we keep thinking about the use of social media in pharma as the execution of a communication strategy on top of an existing social-exchange platform such as “Twitter” or “YouTube,” this industry is really going to struggle with making this important communication channel work well for them. The problem lies in the very nature of these platforms, in that they are built for the purpose of enabling as much dialogue and sharing as possible with the minimum amount of friction. In addition, in order for these platforms to make money they must be able to scale effectively and efficiently. These two concepts – rapid-information exchange and scalability – makes these kinds of pre-existing, mass-media social platforms ill-suited for pharma’s highly constrained communication efforts.

This as at the heart of the issue – and it flies in the face of pharma’s need to ensure a high degree of control about how product information is portrayed. Context, for example, can change everything. So a discussion about a product on a page that contains fair-balance language might be OK in one instance, but only until someone shares it and it appears somewhere else where there is no more fair balance, or where the fair balance drops off because it’s being displayed on a mobile device, or in a channel where the character limitations abridge the post with a URL short link. These are issues that will never go away, and the only thing FDA will say in this regard is that if pharma can control it, then they are responsible for it. Most of the time, pharma decides that the only thing they can control is not doing it at all. And so we end up with very little, if not nothing.

While there is no silver bullet, there is definitely more gold here than lead. Those brave and clever enough have figured out ways to make social media possible – either by hacking the existing platforms to make them do what they need them to do (Intouch Solutions did so with its Facebook PharmaWall product) or building their own network of interconnected niche platforms (Sanofi has done an excellent job of this across the diabetes spectrum). There are literally hundreds of other examples of companies playing in the “social” stream, with their videos on YouTube or branded facebook pages – in most cases with not an iota of interactivity or true “social”-exchange available. I don’t think of this as “social media.” It’s media in a social stream. Just another boat on the river looking for eyeballs, but never diving deep enough to truly engage anyone, and therefore transform anything.

Fabio Gratton is on leave from Palio+Ignite to serve as Chief Daddy-O at the Gratton Residence.

Posted: July 2013