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Biotech, Pharmaceutical Companies Listen to Social Media

Yesterday the Boston Business Journal ran an overview, "Biotechs proceed with social-media caution," of the state of affairs in drug companies’ use of Web 2.0 platforms like Facebook, Twitter and blogs.

As you’d expect, this is an issue tracked carefully by every PR firm in Boston, San Francisco and other areas where the drug and medical device industries are concentrated.

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As we all know, companies that market therapies and medical devices in the U.S. have to be prudent in their use of social media. Lacking FDA guidance, they generally believe that they need to steer clear of anything that might be deemed promotional. (John Moore of Chilmark Research boils it down for readers in the Boston Business Journal article: "How do you have clear disclaimers in 140 characters?") And what if patients make claims that aren’t supported by FDA labeling? Or report side effects that the drug or device company can’t verify?

Yet, as the article points out, people are talking anyway–patients and their families will continue to search online for information about conditions and treatments–and biotech and medical device companies increasingly feel that they have to at least listen to those conversations.

I’ve heard some ask, "Why would I listen when I can’t respond?" That mindset strikes me as too tactically focused and short-sighted. A response to that post or that tweet may be out of the question, but any effective external communications program has to be based on a reasonably comprehensive understanding of how your product is perceived.

Beyond that, as the article and other discussions of pharmaceutical marketing have pointed out, companies can still make some use of social media as a channel to reach target audiences. They might be hamstrung at this moment in time in not being free to engage in every two-way conversation, but pharmaceutical and medical device companies should be able to get creative in their use of social media to disseminate some types of information, such as facts about a particular medical condition and tips on its management that have nothing to do with a drug or device.

Jim Weinrebe from Schwartz attended the November 2009 FDA hearings on social media and opined, at the time, that "active listening and monitoring" of social media by drug and device companies would gradually become seen as "safe" and would not go hand in hand with a requirement to "police."

Pharma and device companies are listening to what’s being said online and some are beginning to go a bit beyond. None of these firms are giving consumer brands a run for their money in use of social media, but it’s clear that they should at least begin to listen. Perceiving social media use as "all or nothing" isn’t in line with industry leaders’ current thinking.

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Laura Kempke

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