Brief Programming Note: Apologies for the slow going on posting here as of late. Between a work, real life and a vacation, it’s been difficult to carve out the time to write. But alas, things look to be freeing up so I’ll be back at it more regularly. I know; music to your ears.
Have you heard? A few pharmaceutical companies (and one oil company) have recently stepped into a healthy dose of crisis situations. As is always the case, the response to those crises has been sliced, diced and pureed in every way imaginable. The majority of industry pundits have been dissatisfied with the response of pharmaceutical companies in crisis situations and have pointed to their social media presence as proof of failed strategy.
I’m here to tell you it is not that simple.
In the midst of a crisis communications situation, there is a list 15 city blocks long of what a pharmaceutical company can’t say. This is never more true than in the public eye of social media. On the flip side, the list of things a pharma company can say when embroiled in a crisis is small enough to fit in your wallet. So, all those calling for full transparency using social media are naïve. I certainly would not suggest that a company should withhold pertinent information or intentionally deceive the public—but they simply cannot provide full transparency. Why? In many instances it’s illegal pending FDA review. There is also a litany of legal considerations that put the squeeze on communications during a crisis. For example, no legal team at a pharmaceutical company would ever allow a public apology before all the facts have been sorted out. In a legal sense, a public apology admits fault. Fault implies responsibility and responsibility brings lawsuits. It might seem callous, but that’s the reality.
Given the grim picture I have just painted, is there any hope for a pharmaceutical company dealing with a crisis. Should they even be considering social media as a platform for handling a crisis and protecting their reputation?
While there is a long list of what you are not able to say during a crisis, you should be prepared to quickly say whatever is within bounds. It sounds simple but too many companies get caught with their pants down under the assumption that a crisis won’t hit their companies. A few well-respected brands would beg to differ. You should enter a social media engagement expecting a crisis. If you don’t expect a crisis then shame on you. Knowing that a crisis situation may occur, you can then intelligently guess the areas where one is likely to arise. Product recalls, disgruntled shareholders and adverse events seem likely to tip off a firestorm. What are you doing to prepare for these circumstances?
Again, this is not about transparency for the sake of transparency. A pharmaceutical company should not be taking to social media channels discussing specific adverse events. But, it should be prepared to let the patient population know that they have been heard, the dialogue is open and they take the situation very seriously. Pharmaceutical companies should also be prepared to offer additional resources. Most pharmaceutical companies have case managers in their patient advocacy program—they should be at the ready during a crisis. Top management should be visible and active.
There is a common misconception when it comes to crisis communications—that if done correctly, it is capable of solving the problem. Regardless of how well you handle the crisis from a communications perspective, it still happened. Crisis communications is not about fixing the problem, it’s about putting forward the human dynamic of a company—and there is no better way to do that than with social media.