I have been working in pharma social media for well over 10 years now and in that time I have seen some real social media bloopers. Ten years ago some of them were excusable – others were just as bad then as they are now. When I first started to specialise in pharma social media it was a time when the default pharma response to this channel was “no we can’t”. Times have certainly changed … but not as much as they should or could have. Some of the pharma social media bloopers are still to be found today.
Ignoring patients and HCP comments
Back in the day some of the top bloopers from pharma companies around social media revolved around replying to posts. Whilst to some it may seem crazy today, back in the day there were pharma companies which forbade any form of engagement on social media. If you were a patient or an HCP with a genuine question on social media you were simply ignored. In fact in some cases your comments were deleted and you were blocked.
John Mack, aka @pharmaguy, wrote about one such patient. Shirley was faced with permanent alopecia following treatment with Taxotere. Like many people she took to social media and posted to a Sanofi Facebook page called Voices. She shared her dismay and upset. She also though had a valid point, namely that she was not made aware of this side effect. You can see all the details on John’s blog but essentially rather than engage with a valid patient concern the company deleted her posts. When she reposted she was blocked.
The above case was clearly an inappropriate response! Other pharma social media bloopers I have seen are the result of what I presumed were automated replies. I say presumed as many of them took days to respond. One example includes someone complaining about the weather forecast not boding well for their hayfever – and being told to contact drug safety. I am not sure that drug safety can help much with the weather!
Unfortunately I have also seen some tragic posts involving family or patient deaths. These required sensitive, human responses. Instead they got pharma-speak automated style cold jargon responses.
Another common blooper is around timing. I know from experience that some pharma used the same approval systems they used decades ago for social media – i.e. taking weeks to approve something. In social media you often need to respond same day or at the latest within 24 hours. One example I saw was of someone who’s medication arrived at room temp when it was meant to be refrigerated. The patient was asking what they should do. It took the pharma company 5 days to reply. Another tweet from a doctor for a patient on their death bed took 4 days to reply. In my mind those were inexcusable. Where patient safety is an issue the response should be same day.
One reason for many of these bloopers besides poor process, is a lack of appropriate SOPs or training. I have written many pharma social media SOPs, run many trainings and designed quite a few new approval processes. Today this should no longer be a reason for bloopers. Back in the Taxotere Shirley’s day one of the big issues was lack of community guidelines. If you are going to delete people’s posts you should give a reason why. Often there are regulatory reasons why something cannot be discussed via social media – just let people know.
In fact regulatory reasons are why it is critical to have suitable social media SOPs and training. In the vast majority of countries pharma companies – and their employees – are not permitted to promote their products to the public. That includes via social media. This also means that any post that could be seen as promotion (e.g. this product really helped this person) can be a major issue. Retweeting what a KOL shares from a congress about your companies products can also be a major issue – especially if it is off-label. I have seen both of these recently. Both employees were oblivious that what they were doing was non-compliant. As soon as they were told they deleted the posts – and were a bit mortified. The fines involved could have been huge. All because SOPs and basic training were lacking.
Lack of humanity
I have saved the worst for last. For me the biggest pharma social media blooper is lack of humanity. We work in an industry that should care about people. Social media is a personal communication channel. When patients, or HCPs, try to engage with reasonable questions or comments, they at the very least deserve a human response. When patients are sick and asking a valid question they should be treated with respect.
The same goes for working with influencers. I have seen quite a few pharma companies treat influencers, particularly patient influencers, in totally inappropriate ways. Brand teams sometimes seem to forget that these are real people. They are not some paper contract or random Twitter account. They are people with genuine expectations and needs. Expecting an autoimmune patient to get on a 6am flight to attend your influencer summit, because you have not budgeted for a hotel, is not acceptable. Asking an influencer to support you on a campaign only to drop them last minute with no explanation, and not even a personal call, is just wrong.
These are just some of the pharma social media bloopers I have seen over the years. All are wrong and all need not have happened. I have supported so many companies and brand teams over the years to make sure none of these happen. It does take skill and expertise, but it is not rocket science either.
Today we face so many other issues with social media, such as fake information and trolls, we need to make sure we have got the basics covered. In an age when it feels like the whole world is on social media how can we as an industry risk not having the right SOPs and training in place? But also how we can risk not being present on this critical channel? Perhaps if as an industry we had responded to the initial anti-vax issues in the 1990s, we would not be in the situation we are in today?
If you need support with your social media SOPs, process or training then please contact me.