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Communications practitioners have needed to move swiftly in recent years to harness advances in online technology to deliver content effectively to key audiences.

e-gagementCommunications practitioners have needed to move swiftly in recent years to harness advances in online technology to deliver content effectively to key audiences. However, while web pages and chat rooms have changed the way readers access content, communications via these media outlets have still followed the traditional top-down model of one source broadcasting content to many - with messages arriving at the other end, largely intact.

The advent of social media on the other hand - where people interact virtually, in real-time open forums - represents a new model of information dissemination where readers have evolved from information receivers into active participants. In developing, reinterpreting and retransmitting content, these 'citizen journalists' can now be just as influential in driving audiences' perceptions of brands and companies as traditional media outlets and content providers.

In the blogosphere, every piece of information and every experience of a product can be shared, critiqued and discussed by an almost infinite number of online users. By creating these complex connections and allowing information to spread very fast, social media has the potential not just to affect an organisation's reputation, but to define it.

For the pharmaceutical industry, where controlled dissemination of information and messages is vital, the implications are clear: traditional communications strategies will need to evolve to keep up with the unique opportunities and challenges of the social media universe. If the social media phenomenon does evolve to the point where communities dominate brands (Communities Dominate Brands, T Ahonen & A Moore), those traditional strategies may well be subjected to greater stress than they can bear.

The blogosphere
The social media revolution is well underway. 'Wikis', 'blogging' and 'discussion boards' are fast-growing digital spaces where information is shared, opinions voiced, reputations are won or lost, and where, very often, corporate voices are not welcome.

Blogs may have started as online journals for computer geeks but they have now become a force to be reckoned with. According to Technorati, there are 71 million blogs online, with 175,000 created every day. These blogs receive over 1.6 million posts daily (over 18 updates a second). While the vast majority are diary-type blogs of interest to only a few, many have gained large audiences.

A quick search of Google's blog engine reveals over 100,000 results for each of the top five pharmaceutical companies, and 311 for Cohn & Wolfe. Traditional media outlets are updating their offerings to provide content via blogs; the Lancet, the British Medical Journal and New Scientist are just three of the influential international healthcare publications that have embraced the blogging phenomenon.

Online physician communities are growing rapidly and have the potential to improve patient care by providing an open, global and real-time forum for the sharing of information, opinions, clinical evidence and best practice. Sermo, for example, is the fastest growing online community created by physicians for physicians, with membership increasing by 17 per cent each week and around 600 hours of blogging recorded per week.

When it comes to patients, individuals with conditions such as diabetes and cancer have formed large blogging communities. These 'citizen medical experts' provide information on their illness and its treatments, coping strategies, and can answer 'difficult' questions not asked in front of the physician.

For the healthcare sector, therefore, social media provides real opportunities for the development of medical knowledge and the improvement of patient experience. On the flip side, the open availability of company-generated communications and opinion, debate and conjecture is not without its challenges. Chat among any community can be viewed by any other web browser, linked to other blogs (blogrolls and trackbacks) and become part of a digital web of cross-referencing information that spreads across the globe. So, for example, grumbles from a disgruntled sales rep can be accessed by physicians, patients, media or analysts looking for content and can negatively affect brand perceptions and reputation.

For the communicator, understanding and harnessing new social media technologies can serve as both an early warning system for what is being said about a company or a brand, but also as an opportunity for companies and brands to lead conversations in ways that position them as trusted and well regarded leaders in information provision.

Communications strategy
Maintaining tight control over the development and distribution of information has, historically, been essential for pharmaceutical companies, to ensure that marketing activities meet ethical, legal and regulatory requirements. To achieve this, a 'command and control' strategy has traditionally been employed, where content is carefully developed, and its delivery is managed to ensure that the messages audiences hear are those which were originally communicated.

However, effective engagement with social media can succeed only through the evolution of a new communications strategy that focuses on more effective and open information sharing. The old adage that 'information is power' applies particularly well to the pharmaceutical industry, which is for the most part mistrusted as 'big pharma' by the public.

As pharma communicators, we need to realise that the sharing of information does not necessarily equal a reduction in power; rather, by ensuring that citizen journalists are working from a reliable source, the chances of accurate and consistent messaging are increased. Further, the open sharing of information will generate a positive relationship between communities and the information provider, and further empower the proactive management of message dissemination.

Blog vs flog
Although the command and control strategy will become less effective as social media increases in influence, it is still possible to maintain some ownership of messaging by targeting the sites that provide greater control over content and dialogue.

At a corporate level, blogs have great potential as a means to hold a conversation with customers and media and can serve as effective vehicles for marketing, market research and thought leadership.

Nonetheless, a word of caution is needed. Since blogs are, by nature, often sceptical and anti-establishment, inappropriately thought-out or managed attempts to co-opt blogs as part of a public relations effort can backfire. The most serious issue arises when a blog pretends to be independent, but is in fact driven by a hidden company agenda.

The rules of e-gagement

1. Understand your target audience.

2. Engage with influential members of the blogging community, just as you would with the traditional media.
Jupiter recently published research that highlighted the emergence of 'the new influentials' - the people that organisations must identify and work with to succeed in social networks - since they influence everything from purchasing decisions to the prevailing opinions of brands. Their blogs are well-maintained, updated regularly and linked to much larger social networks.

3. Respect this new audience.
Remember that a great many bloggers know their subjects much better than the 'old media', so hype and spin are less likely to be effective. But don't be afraid to engage with them. You will gain credibility and build positive relationships if you show a willingness to make open, honest connections with these key influencers.

4. Identify issues and move fast: develop a response and approval process suited to the new media age.
One of the fundamental truths about the social media phenomenon is that information has a tendency to spread, often very fast. This presents an enormous challenge to traditional corporate issues response mechanisms, which are designed to respond at a different pace. They risk leaving a dangerous gap in information provision, which the blogosphere and its new influentials will inevitably fill with their own content, connections and opinions. Left too late, it won't be possible to influence this process to any meaningful degree. So establishing a fast track response system and approval process is vital to gain some control over reputation.

The good news is that the explosion of social media has generated a number of companies who are able to monitor, report and analyse online chat. Enlisting such specialists allows organisations to track how reputations are being shaped online and to formulate appropriate strategies in response.

5. Ensure the information you provide is as open as possible.
This applies equally to communicating with traditional and social media audiences: when a crisis occurs, it's much better to share information with key identified bloggers, to open up rather than pull down the shutters. There is very little that one organisation can do to stop the spread of information. It's much more productive to understand that openness and engagement with social media will enhance not harm reputations.

6. Become part of the social media universe.
Organisations should try to go beyond communications with the blogosphere to become part of that vast social media universe themselves. Many companies now have blogs. Some betray a misunderstanding of the medium by using it as a traditional vehicle for corporate announcements. The best ones however give key individuals - and not always top management - the ability to express themselves more freely and to engage openly and honestly with their peers. Blogs on technical or scientific issues are especially suited for this purpose. Microsoft, for example, has won credit for allowing its chief technical officer to blog honestly and openly on Windows and other MS products, and to invite free comment from fellow IT professionals.

7. Open the door to your 'new influencers'.
Communications with the blogosphere should not be confined to moments of crisis. There is much to be gained from maintaining a regular dialogue, especially with the key 'new influencers'. Provide them with regular information on your activities; give them a forum to engage with your organisation; link to them from your own blogs.

8. Openness, honesty, respect.
These are the key values for all social media activity.

The power of blogs
On September 12, 2004, a blog entry was posted that mentioned that a disposable BIC pen could open supposedly impenetrable Kryptonite bicycle locks. Word spread via blogs. Kryptonite issued a statement that its locks still deterred theft. The New York Times picked up the story and ran it the next day. According to blog monitoring company Technorati, nearly two million people visited blogs to read more about it. Eventually, Kryptonite paid $10 million in replacement locks.

The Authors
Rebecca Burton is Associate Director at Cohn & Wolfe Healthcare, she can be contacted at

Geoff Beattie is Managing Director at Cohn & Wolfe, he can be contacted at

2nd September 2008


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