Today in Twitter land, there has been a bit of good-natured, virtual sparring from John Mack of the Pharma Marketing Blog and Rich Meyer of the World of DTC Marketing. The debate surrounded the likely impact the upcoming FDA social media hearings will have on pharmaceutical marketing and whether or not the agency will issue any guidance.
John falls in the optimistic camp, boldly predicting that the FDA will have draft guidance by the end of 2010. Rich on the other hand is skeptical that the FDA is little more than a spectacle. As you can imagine, I hope that John wins the flip of the coin on this debate.
But what I found more interesting than the debate itself was some of the reasoning to uphold the argument. Because in some ways, my head tells me that Rich is correct that the FDA hearings may not result in any quick action. After all, the agency is the equivalent of a Boeing 747—quick adjustments are a complicated orchestration. But my viewpoint is more of a commentary on the agency and its bureaucracy than the potential impact of social media for pharmaceutical marketers. I have little doubt that social media holds immense potential for the industry.
Rich raises two areas of contention that I’d like to address. The first is that “consumers are predisposed to distrust pharmaceutical companies and therefore don’t want to talk with them because they don’t want their personal data in cyberspace.” He is absolutely correct that consumers generally distrust pharmaceutical companies. The industry has built up a mountain of ill-will that needs to be overcome. That is tough to dispute. But similar to my previous post on a self-fulfilling prophecy, does that ill-will mean we should continue to ignore consumers? Isn’t that the attitude that created this disdain in the first place? If used ethically, transparently and with the needs of the patient in mind, social media provides an incredible opportunity to start mending the relationship between consumers and pharmaceutical companies. Consumers do want to hear from drug companies so long as the information is not solely an effort to push product, is a conversation and not a podium and is informative.
The second point that raised an eyebrow for me was the assertion that “having an agency do your social media strategy is like having someone else speak for you at the dinner table.” I believe the intent of this statement is that transparency is paramount when it comes to social media. This is accurate. Any interaction on a social network needs to be authentic and honest. But an agency certainly has a place in this process. Of course, I have a vested interest in this as I work for a PR agency but that’s not the sole reason behind my statement. Sticking with a similar analogy, diving into social media without expert counsel (doesn’t have to be an agency) is akin to cooking a rack of lamb the first time without following a cookbook. Or to offer an alternative analogy, it would be like facing charges in a court of law and deciding to serve as your own attorney. It just is not prudent.
However, the role of an agency or any expert counsel should absolutely, positively, 100% NOT be to serve as the voice of the pharmaceutical company. That part has to come from the company itself. An agency can outline a strategy, point to relevant influencers, monitor social networks for relevant content, etc…Basically, an agency serves as the arms and legs that help deal with the scale issue presented by social media.
The upcoming FDA hearings will be an important turning point for social media in pharma. Which way it turns remains to be seen.