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Stop saying no

It's time to look at practical approaches for online engagement in social media

A finger pressing a button saying 'yes'In the May 2009 issue of Pharmaceutical Marketing - in a feature called Stage Fright - Aaron Pond from Aurora said: "[Web 2.0] is like putting the audience on the stage" and that "healthcare communicators do not need a sea change to function in an acceptable way online". A year on, how far have we come? Has the pharma industry shifted with the social media tide and developed corporate governance and standard operating procedures (SOPs) for appropriate engagement?

I am pleased to report that from our perspective, progress is afoot. A number of our clients are working hard to develop internal confidence, trust, processes and IT solutions to join the online discussion and, at the recent #hcsmeucamp event in Berlin, industry representatives led thought about the role of digital information in healthcare delivery.

Yet in some pockets of the industry (both on the agency and the industry side), we still hear some people claiming to "hate social media". Not only could these three little words pose a significant business threat to the companies in question (by missing out on early mover advantage), but by continuing to hide behind the stage curtain they could incur damage to their reputations, which has implications for our industry as a whole.

Using social media is a global norm
A quick look at some social media (SM) statistics will give this article a bit of perspective. Erik Qualman's YouTube video: Social media revolution was recently refreshed and here are some of the top-line statistics: 96 per cent of millenials have joined a social network; iPod apps recently hit one billion downloads in a nine month period; the fastest growing user segment of Facebook is 55–65 year old women; YouTube is the second largest search engine in the world and there are currently 200 million blogs in existence.

Our industry clearly understands the importance and relevance of SM as a communication revolution, and a number of companies are "toe dabbling". Andrew Spong's first issue of the quarterly report The top 20 pharma accounts on Twitter: rated, ranked and reconsidered shows that some in our industry are engaging online, but highlighting variance between Twitter accounts, he concludes: "Those accounts which fare best in the ranks are also those which make the best use of the Twitter protocols that expedite conversation [...] Conversely, those at the bottom tend to use these protocols the least."

So if it's good to talk, what is blocking more digital conversation occurring in the UK?

In keeping with the Code
Code issues and EU legislative considerations that may constrain the way in which pharma engages online have already been debated extensively and were highlighted by Heather Simmonds at the PM Society's Digital Update meeting in May. The key takeaway point from compliance discourse is that it is not possible for a sweeping statement to define appropriate and inappropriate uses of SM. Each activity that a company may consider needs to be judged on its own intent and within its own context.

However, a few rules of thumb: a non-promotional, information-only online presence is plausible; we must endeavour to make information online as accurate as possible as soon as we support it (in terms of human resource, money or time); only link to content that is accurate, fair and balanced; ensure an adverse event reporting mechanism exists, and approach all social media activities with educational conversations and the spirit and letter of the Code in mind.

Even with such rules of thumb in place, some people continue to say they "hate social media." We believe this statement should be consigned to the bin of old ideas. Let's explore some reasons for this attitude, and offer some relationship counselling on pharma and SM.

Time and resource
Implementing a social media strategy may seem like a daunting task. From the outset, one might expect to battle internal resistance and the thought of developing a social media SOP is enough to send a shudder down any spine. Considering this, it's easy to understand resistance to social media. But experience shows that setting up social media processes is perfectly manageable, as is monitoring and engagement.

We've found that planning for SM is no different from kick-starting any other communications or marketing activity. Internal stakeholders need to be gathered around a table from the outset.

By getting representatives from the legal, medical information, medical governance, drug safety, brand, communications and signatory departments involved from the start, internal challenges can be identified early and addressed before becoming time consuming. More than this, the perspectives of these different professionals add real value to the planning. For example, drug safety teams typically bust the myth that monitoring social media will inevitably result in a deluge of adverse event reporting. Similarly, those from the comms team are well placed to help identify tone and develop nimble processes for managing any issues that may arise.

Social media engagement requires finding a voice that is an appropriate representation of the values of your organisation, which means understanding the thoughts and views of all levels of the business. Bringing together an early social media advocacy team (ESMAT) is a smart first step. The ESMAT's thoughts on your social media voice can then be validated against the social media environment by listening to what is being said, and then checking that your intended tone is suitable.

After using your ears to refine your voice, you will naturally want to start to talk. Before doing so, it's important to reflect on exactly what you are trying to achieve, who you want to have digital conversations with and the value proposition for the audience you'll be engaging with on a specific topic. Perhaps put more simply, you are creating a dialogue, so what do you have to say that is of value?

In terms of time and resource, it is certainly worth checking in with your global colleagues to understand what work they have undertaken to date. Many will have already planned for social media, and some may even have SOPs that can be used as a starting point. In addition, there are "sand pits" like Yammer (which has a Twitter-like feel to it) that can be used to practice with social media internally before letting your social media vocal chords resonate openly.

Mitigating risk
Risk to the organisation is often suggested as a block to SM uptake and the argument goes something like this: "Social media means we may lose control of messaging and the conversation. We like the certainty of traditional marketing and see only risk associated with SM."

This argument is inherently confused. The technological changes that have enabled social media have also meant that the traditional idea of controlled messaging is long gone. Technological innovation will continue and so the transfer of information in society will become more conversational, more social. Cloud computing is on its way, our Government believes that rapid rollout and adoption of broadband across the UK is important to both social and economic success, and Facebook is forging a partnership with Microsoft aiming to be the first port of call for internet browsing so that any website you visit has customised content based on how you use Facebook.

Bearing all of this in mind, the real risk is to ignore SM and to put developing SOPs and approaches on hold. By visibly showing stakeholders a desire to engage and learn from feedback, organisations mitigate risk and build positive reputations. The halo effect of trust we traditionally talk about is true in SM, but it has to be earned by engagement.

It seems odd that our industry would abide by the first rule of issues management (to tell as much as you know, as soon as you can) with traditional media, but ignore it with SM. There is no reason for a pharmaceutical company to feel it cannot respond to an online corporate reputation issue. The skill comes in getting it right by showing that you are listening and respectfully establishing your point of view.

A final thought: even if you choose to wait for issues to be resolved at a European level before actively engaging with SM, it is a sensible risk-mitigating move to prepare for its evolution and to be ready to turn with the tide.

Join the conversation
While the inherent risk of SM should be acknowledged and planned for, this factor alone should not be overwhelming. The biggest communication risk posed by social media is to say nothing and become an invisible organisation. Some within our industry are leading the way and understand that it's good to talk. Psychologists recognise that language is the greatest of human traits and the skill of communication is the key driving force behind our evolution.

It is only natural that the way we communicate as a species will evolve and adapt as the way we interact with the world changes. As an industry that leads scientific development and significantly contributes to human knowledge, we must recognise that human behaviour is changing and that we are well placed to help people engage in useful conversations about their health and science. It is time to find our ears and voice and to show some love for social media. It's most definitely time to stop saying "no".

The Authors
Aaron Pond is account director and digital lead at Aurora and Neil Crump is joint managing director at Aurora
Join the conversation: auroracommsblog.com

To comment on this article, email pm@pmlive.com

2nd July 2010

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