I have been asked to talk about the topic of “Is Pharma Afraid of Social Media” at the GLC Social Media and Emarketing Forum this week in Frankfurt.  Had I been asked this question a few years ago, indeed even last year, I would have said a resounding “Yes”.  However times have changed and my initial response to this was “not anymore”.  But I thought I would reach out and ask the community and see what they thought.  I posted a poll  on Linkedin, and then shared it via Linkedin and Twitter.

I will have to admit that I was mildly surprised by the result (so far at least).   The first pleasant surprise was the talented Andrew Spong feeling inspired by my poll to write a blog post in response: http://stwem.com/2013/06/04/four-reasons-why-pharma-isnt-afraid-of-social-media/

The second surprise was that I thought the majority of answers would go to “Yes and No” as opposed to “Yes” or “No” – if anything because it is the most neutral “depends”-like answer.  The result so far however is a resounding “Yes” with over 50% voting that Pharma is indeed afraid of social media.

Personally my response is the “Yes and No” because of the mix in responses to social media – there have been some great examples but there are also a large number of pharma companies failing to adequately engage via social media.  I can however understand the strong tendency towards the “Yes” vote – there are certainly enough examples of pharma being scared of social media.

Firstly, while there are many pharma companies that have undertaken great social media initiatives (like GE Healthcare’s current #GetFit initiative) there are far more examples of no initiatives or a lack of activity.  If we look at Facebook for example at first glance it looks like pharma is finally onboard as most of the big companies have some sort of Facebook presence.  On closer inspection however you will notice that very few have their walls open to posting – Boehringer Ingelheim is one of the few to do this.  This shows, in my opinion, a fear of opening up to conversation, questions and engagement.  By restricting your engagement simply to comments under your own posts you have some form of control – comments are less visible than posts and in theory will be focused around what you posted.  This reflects pharma’s fear of giving up control – something which is a reality on social media.

Boehringer Ingelheim and Novartis's Facebook pages

Boehringer Ingelheim and Novartis’s Facebook pages

Secondly is the age old regulatory argument.  As Andrew so rightly points out there are very few examples of regulatory bodies raising complaints or having issues with any of pharmas social media activity (including Boehringer Ingelheim’s full-on engagement approach).  Nonetheless this fact seems to have evaded a number of people in pharma.  Regulatory constraints is still the number one push back I get from pharma companies around why they are not active on social media.  It is a great, and very comfortable excuse.  It also highlights the fear of trying something “new” (even if social media really is no longer new).

Thirdly I believe politics and internal inefficiency is often holding companies back from publishing and pushing through social media guidelines.  Yes many companies have these (I like Andrew have also written quite a few!) but what I have also seen is that these guidelines get approved and may get shared with a few people at global and department level, but it is not unheard of to find out that people on the ground, at local level, have no idea that these guidelines exist, or if they do they are still to concerned to take the risk to implement.  For guidelines to be effective they have to be communicated, publicised and encouraged, from senior executives, otherwise they end up in drawers or getting ignored.

Finally I think the sad reality is there is still a great deal of “ostrich head in sand” syndrome in the industry – the concept that if I do not see or hear it then it does not exist or affect me.  I have often heard the reason / excuse for not doing social media that “it is not relevant to me / to my stakeholders”.  My response to that is “take your head out of the sand and look around”! There are very few instances when there is literally no value or use in social media.  Certainly all marketing and communications related departments, and those relating to clinical trials, can glean a great deal of insights just from social media listening.  As to stakeholders not using social media – this is an ever diminishing group – do they really warrant your total lack of attention in this area?

So there is still a great deal of fear of social media in pharma.  That said I am an optimist and I think that fear is diminishing.  I firmly believe if I redo this survey next year there will be a resounding majority answering “No” pharma is not afraid of social media.

And thanks again Andrew for the inspirational blog post (if you have got this far and have not yet read then I recommend it  http://stwem.com/2013/06/04/four-reasons-why-pharma-isnt-afraid-of-social-media/ )

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