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Protecting the brand

In an era when virtually anyone can be an online publisher, going digital is no longer an option for pharma companies looking to safeguard their reputation

Over the past 10 years, the reputation of the pharma industry has been beset by a number of high-profile controversies, including the withdrawal of Vioxx, swirling debate around Ketek's adverse events and, most recently, the cardiovascular concerns surrounding diabetes wonder-drug, Avandia.

Though the industry is not new to controversy, its public standing has now sunk to new lows, and all the while, the communications environment is changing.

Rapidly increasing numbers of people are entering the healthcare debate and the role that pharmaceutical companies and regulators play is being scrutinised on an unprecedented level.

Virtually anyone can be an online publisher these days and, in the era of mass communication, compelling content (be it truthful or otherwise) is the new limited resource.

The pharmaceutical industry is playing catch-up in terms of embracing new media, but what is the reason for this? Is it a simple case of pharmaceutical medical/legal procedure preventing marketers from getting agreement on strategy, messaging and materials in a timely fashion? Is it a lack of understanding of what is available and how it can be utilised? Or, is it just a fear of falling foul of out-dated regulations, built on traditional models of communication?

Certainly there are good reasons why the CEO of a pharma company should not be blogging in the same way that the CEO of an automobile manufacturer does. However, without a counter-measure, the online debate is being shaped by a one-dimensional conversation and it is often one that is critical of the pharma industry on principle.

With this in mind, 'going digital' is no longer an option, but is essential for a successful marketing campaign.

Media revolution

The maturation of the internet has sparked a full-scale
communications and media revolution, with traditional models of communication being thrown out the window in favour of dialogue and consumer-generated content. The internet is no longer a linear communications tool, where information can be imparted directly from one person to the next. Millions of people not only absorb information online, they contribute to it, engage with it, decide what is truthful and do all of this on their own terms.

Faster internet connections and increasing consumer experience have resulted in the internet becoming the information source of choice. At any one time, over 1.1 billion people around the world can access the internet, with up to 69 per cent of the North American population, 62.3 per cent of the UK population and 39.4 per cent of the overall European population having online access.

In the UK, it has been reported that GPs spend up to 16 hours a month online ñ some eight times the average two hours they spend seeing pharmaceutical sales reps. It is quite conceivable that over the next 15 years, the pharmaceutical industry will shift from a sales-led to a customer-focused, marketing-led industry and marketers should be laying the foundations now.

Words and phrases like wiki, blog, social networking, RSS and Web 2.0 certainly mean something to most pharmaceutical marketers, but being aware of the tools and integrating them into successful marketing plans are two very different things. So, just what are the tools and which ones should pharmaceutical marketers be paying attention to?

Really Simple Syndication (RSS)

RSS is a tool that enables internet users to subscribe to multiple feeds from multiple websites. RSS brings together news and information in a format that enables users to decide what information they want to read and how to filter it. The aggregator, as the collection software is known, is updated whenever new content is posted on a chosen website and ensures internet users receive the information 'as it happens'.

People still subscribe by email, but RSS feeds allow internet users to bring all of their interests on to one page, rather than having to rummage through 20-30 emails.

Comparing the US and European markets, one sees that a number of pharmaceutical companies have already begun issuing press releases by RSS feeds, as have the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Pharmaceutical Researchers and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA). In contrast, the European Medicines Agency (EMEA) and International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA) do not, which means that their news is spreading at a slower rate than those using RSS.

Web News Releases (WNRs)

In addition to the tried and tested press release, pharmaceutical companies can now send out web news releases (WNR). The WNR can reach an online audience faster, just as an RSS feed can reach them more quickly, and in a more targeted way than an email. Services offer various levels of exposure depending on how much is paid for, but the basics involve electronic distribution through various news distributors and search engines. Information can also be distributed to targeted industries and geographical regions.

Online Social Media

Online social media, a phenomenon of Web 2.0 (the collective term for new media) is likely to feature prominently in a consumer-focused market. Online social networking is the process of using internet communications technologies to reach out to other internet users, to create new relationships or to enhance existing off-line relationships.

Email, SMS, chat rooms, bulletin boards, blogs and wikis are all classified as social media tools, and pharma firms are already making use of these as part of their internal communication programmes. Indeed, while emails and bulletin boards are commonplace in today's corporate environment, at the other end of the spectrum, most major pharma companies are now using social networking sites to bolster internal communications.

Social networking, site de jour, Facebook, lists Novartis AG, Roche, Pfizer and AstraZeneca employees as regular users of its service, with one of the largest users being GSK, which currently has over 5,042 members in its network. Facebook is estimated to be worth USD 2bn and, with Google paying over USD 1.6bn for YouTube, social networking is proving to be a serious business.

Unsurprisingly, in the home to direct-to-consumer marketing, there is a growing legion of US social networking sites dedicated to providing consumers with health information. Most prominent is Revolution Health, a site set-up by AOL founder Steve Case.

This site is dedicated to 'putting individuals at the centre of their own healthcare' and includes health information, blogs and community message forums. It is only a matter of time before such networks are launched across Europe.

Pharma blogs

Blogging is a tactic long thought of as off-limits in the pharma industry, but the recent launch of a corporate blog from Johnson & Johnson is set to send waves across the industry. 'BTW' is an acronym for 'by the way' and the site boldly claims that: 'Everyone else is talking about our company, so why can't we?'

The blog is open in stating that it will not be able to comment on all issues; in particular those that impact regulatory decisions or are enshrouded in legal constraints. It is unlikely that the content will parallel the insights provided by corporate blogs from other industries, but it is a step in the right direction towards transparency and building the confidence and trust of their most important stakeholders ñ the general public. It remains to be seen how the company will handle a controversy on the scale of Vioxx, but it will make for interesting reading.

There are over 40 million blogs in existence and blogging is fast becoming the media source of choice. The emergence of Google Finance means that blog postings now appear in a very public fashion, alongside share price data, investment announcements, corporate biographies and analyst speculation. To not be a part of this dialogue is to gift critics with a one-sided argument.

Falling foul of outdated rules

With wiki-based websites as the new placard of mass protest, social networking sites having the potential as forums for adverse event reporting and with ill-informed blog postings jostling with analyst speculation for share of online voice, marketers could be forgiven for wondering why they should join the online debate at all.

There are websites dedicated to every audience imaginable and covering an almost infinite list of subjects. Is new media something that should be embraced by an industry hallmarked by conservatism?

The regulatory handcuffs are a genuine concern, and inappropriate use of new media can backfire on a spectacular scale. However, the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI), Chartered Institute of Public Relations, IFPMA and French-regulator, Afssaps, to name a few, all issue guidance on use of new media to a certain extent. The most recent edition of the ABPI Code of Practice has an entire clause dedicated to the internet. Guidance broadly covers promotional material placed on the internet, methods of targeting healthcare professionals and the provision of product and prescribing information.

It is not difficult to interpret the spirit of the Code, but the industry needs to work with regulatory bodies to address the emergence of consumer-led, citizen journalism and how pharma companies can redress the balance between ill-informed speculation and factual reporting.

New media should no longer be an afterthought and marketers need to identify ways of engaging this media, while protecting their brand and controlling its message in a regulated fashion.

Keeping an eye on the FDA

Senior vice-president at Fleishman-Hillard (FH), Mark Senak - a man who keeps his ëeye on [the] FDA', explains that, given the speed and scope of growth in online dialogue, there are many reasons why a company should participate in new media. To ignore new media is akin to making a decision to stick with radio advertising as the population migrates to television; it is like using a fax, instead of email, Senak explains.

As noted, the recent foray by Johnson & Johnson into the blogo-sphere is ground-breaking. Although blogging primarily began as a web-log by an individual about an individual's life, the role of corporate blogging has gained in scope and breadth.

The FH blog Eye on FDA, was one of the company's first attempts to marry the perspective of in-house expertise with a blog-marketing effort. As a professional blog, there was an immediate challenge in creating the platform. After all, the appeal of a blog is that it is personal and provides an individual perspective, while the company wants the site to uphold certain professional standards, says Senak.

Eye on FDA settled on a mix. In terms of the blog's design, the left-hand column tends to be more personal and author-based with resources developed by the author, the author's favourite blogs, favourite restaurants, etc. While the right side of the blog is the provision of resources that are in the public domain, but are useful tools gathered in one spot for people interested in the topic ñ everything from a list of current proposed legislation, to medical dictionaries, clinical trials resources and legislative proposal tracking capabilities.

The author deemed resources a vital value-add, giving people further reasons to visit the site.

A key to successful blogging is frequent posting. Each day, the author scans an aggregator where one can examine what other bloggers are saying and, importantly, what they are not saying. In addition, a quick review of the FDA website to see press releases, speeches, congressional testimony, the Federal Register, followed by a glance at a few FDA newsletters, and a topic usually presents itself for commentary as a posting on the blog.

Senak states: The problem is not finding something to say each day ñ it is limiting the number of things about which one wants to write. There are the usual common-sense guidelines when creating a professional blog - dont write about clients/consumers 'or their particular issues, don't call anyone names and try not to criticise specific companies or their products. Those sound easy, but for some reason people violate them all the time. On the flip-side do link with others and do join in on the lengthy conversation that, until now, has been occurring about you, but without you.

The Author:
James Smith is senior account management at Fleishman-Hillard

11th October 2007


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