Social Media Thought Leadership from the Pharmaceutical Industry – a WOMMA Panel

Posted by: in Social Media Insights & Trends on May 11, 2011

Yesterday I had the honor of moderating a pretty unique panel at WOMMA‘s annual School of WOM conference in Chicago.  For those of you who aren’t familiar with WOMMA, it stands for the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WCG is a governing member) and is focused on helping companies to “solve business problems and create talkable brands.”  Made up of both major brands and their “industry partners” (like WCG), the association’s School of WOM conference has become a tremendous source of expertise, thought-leadership and networking.  When I was with Humana (before joining WCG), I loved WOMMA for the opportunity it afforded me to connect with people in other big companies who were dealing with the same issues I was in terms of leveraging social media for our business.

In terms of thought-leadership, my panelists were stellar examples.  We focused on how companies in regulated industries (particularly the pharma industry) can leverage social media to reach their audiences while remaining compliant with the FDA’s regulations on marketing and communications.  [For more on the FDA, see the following Common Sense blog posts: The Regulator’s Dilemma; FDA Delays Social Media Guidance]

I was honored to share the podium with two gentlemen for whom I have tremendous respect:

Matt Boyd, the Director of Regulatory Affairs for EMD Serono (WCG Client); and

Marc Monseau, who’s just announced that he’s giving up his role as Director of Communications and Social Media at Johnson & Johnson (WCG consults for multiple J&J brands) and forming his own company, MDM Communication (which is rather big news in and of itself!).

One of the reasons this panel was particularly unique is that it featured people who are truly forward-thinkers in their fields.  Matt plays a very unusual role as a compliance official who is responsible for leading and shaping his company’s social media strategy.  If you’re a social media practitioner, there is a pretty fair chance that you are in marketing or communications – and that you think of the regulatory and compliance function as your enemy – or at least as an obstacle to be cleared.  The fact that Matt is a leading voice in his company (and, increasingly in the industry) is unusual (and, in my opinion a strategic advantage for his company).  And Marc is widely known as a pioneer in terms of using social media in the pharmaceutical industry … His JNJ BTW blog was (and still is) a groundbreaking enterprise, as are J&J’s level of engagement on Twitter.  Its use of YouTube (Check the number of views on this video!) is also a great example of using video for engagement (it’s surprising how many companies have yet to take full advantage of its capabilities as a communications medium).

Having a conversation with either of these guys alone would have been great … but to have the perspectives of (in my opinion) the leading thinkers in the industry for regulatory/compliance and communication on the same stage was amazing.  We covered a pretty broad set of issues, starting with an industry backdrop:

  • The FDA’s requirement to review communications before they’re shared publically poses some unique problems in a dynamic environment like social media … For example; does every wall post on a facebook page need to FDA clearance?
  • The FDA requires that any discussion about a product and what it does must be balanced with important safety information about the potential negative consequences of using it.  That can be tricky in an environment that is often defined by character-limits (e.g., Twitter’s 140-character maximum) and by the ability to share information across platforms (that users have the ability to change and manipulate at their own discretion, potentially separating product claims from their safety information)
  • There are significant questions outstanding relative to a company’s responsibility for monitoring and maintaining information about its products on the web.  For example: If a Wikipedia page is created about (but not by) a product, and it contains misinformation, is it the manufacturer’s responsibility to correct that misinformation?  If it does so, does it then bear responsibility for monitoring and maintaining the page from that time forward?  This isn’t perhaps a big deal when talking about one page … but what about dozens of products on hundreds (or thousands) of web properties?

We also talked through an important question: Even if all of the regulatory concerns relative to social media suddenly disappeared … are companies in the healthcare space really ready – from a perspective of culture, organizational structure, information security and resources and company processes – to engage using social media (or any other media, for that matter)? This is a huge issue for nearly every large organization that’s very used to have one department (and sometimes one individual) as the sole voice of the company.  Adding additional communicators and additional channels means rethinking all kinds of structures and processes … and most companies in the healthcare space are not terribly collaborative and communicative in terms of their organizational cultures.  Both of our panelists have invested significant time and energy into making gradual changes to corporate culture and practices – through training and experience – designed to help the organization move into a place that is designed to be more open and able to engage with its external stakeholders.

Once we had gotten through some of the risks and hurdles, we turned our attention to some of the truly constructive things that smart companies are doing to leverage social media effectively, which I’d consider to be one stage past best practices … these are new enough that I’d consider them to be “next practices.”

  • Marketers and Communicators need to work together to shape their company’s direction in this space.  And the most successful practitioners are the ones who make the effort to understand their counterparts’ role, issues, concerns, and goals as well as their own.  In other words, communicators need to learn to think like compliance officers; and compliance officers need to learn to think like communicators.  When either side is unequally yoked to the other, problems are bound to ensue.
  • It’s important to spend more time focusing on what CAN be done versus what CAN’T be done.  In spite of the regulatory climate, there are dozens of things that companies can do to begin leveraging the power of social media (and the underlying principles of collaboration and community) in their organizations.  Some of them include:

– Active listening for digital conversations relevant to the company and its products

– A deep understanding of who is influencing those conversations for the brand (and its competitors)

– Building a library of content – in various media – that is germane to what it’s key stakeholders want and need; and

– Building capability internally.  [This is by no means an exhaustive list!]

Capability-building is hugely important here.  It’s one thing to read about social media in a book, or even to take a training class about it.  But to really learn it (like most things) doing it is the best way.  Matt and Marc had different approaches to this theme.  For Matt, most of the capability-building exercises have been internally focused (in other words, practicing using social methods and tools strictly for an internal audience).  At J&J, Marc got his start in talking about items that were purely corporate – and not governed by any FDA regulations.  In both cases, the companies are readying themselves (sharpening the saw, as Abraham Lincoln might say) in a setting that is low-risk.

We wrapped up with some questions from a very engaged, packed-house audience (I think that we could have gone on much longer based on the line at the stage afterwards), and a desire to continue the conversation amongst ourselves … and we all agreed that it would have been wonderful to include some other important pieces of the healthcare communication equation … like adding a patient and a doctor to the mix.  Stay tuned for that one!  We’re all hoping that by sharing these best and next practices, we’ll be able to inspire others to start taking steps – even small ones – to bring a collaborative mindset to their companies and the way that the connect with their stakeholders.

By: Greg Matthews

Greg Matthews is the the creator and Managing Director of the W2O Group's MDigitalLife - Understanding, Engaging and Activating Physicians in the Digital Age

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5 Responses

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  1. Thanks, sounds like a valuable conversation was had ! Pharma’s ability to begin conversations with the community about benefits they bring to people in need and being solution providers is powerful messaging.

  2. Interesting article, the structure of all industry’s marketing channels are changing due to social media. Devising a strong marketing plan and executing it through social media is going to become more important and especially towards transparency.

  3. David, I totally agree … the industry is recognizing that its role in the broader conversation, and indeed the healthcare system, is changing. And there are a few folks out there like Marc and Matt who are clearly in the vaguard of that change. Thanks for your comment!

  4. Pharmaceutical companies have been trying to use Facebook for years, but their concern around the requirement has made them especially cautious, and many of their campaigns over the years have come across as canned or stilted, or otherwise unsocial. But as the Intouch blog points out, they can still take approaches with their Pages that allow them to reach users without running afoul of Facebook or the FDA.

Continuing the Discussion

  1. links for 2011-05-12 :: MarketingSavant linked to this post on May 12, 2011

    […] Social Media Thought Leadership from the Pharmaceutical Industry – a WOMMA Panel | Common Sense (tags: socialmedia pharma) […]

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