Troubled, Some Pharmaceuticals Turn a Blind Eye to the Blogosphere

A rather sad paradox, where fear has overtaken an opportunity to improve relationships with patients and clients. While this may not hold true for every pharmaceutical company, I recently met one who had banned it’s employees from monitoring blogs, social media and the online conversation.

[Why did this pharma company ban their employees to monitor blogs? If a patient complained about a treatment or medicine having ill-effects, then the pharma would would be liable to take action]

Responding to every customer can be very, very costly, considering how many people may be talking about medicines, often anonymously in online forums.

We saw similar fear a few years ago as Finance and Insurance companies were afraid to toe-dip into the conversation due to strict government regulations, although were seeing companies like Wells Fargo launch blogs and virtual worlds, aimed at the ‘lifestyle’ discussion, rather than specifics on your checking account, or CD.

Despite this troubling limitations set on the pharma industry has resulted in low adoption, at least two brands have joined the conversation, Johnson and Johnson’s ‘Connect‘, an interactive media site, and Glaxo Smith Klein’s ‘Alliconnect‘ Blog according to Mark Senard.

[Telling employees not to look at blogs is akin as blocking Facebook at work, off duty employees will simply access it at home, or whip out their mobile phones and surf, there’s no stopping a Groundswell]

While it’s easy to outline the risks, let’s quickly talk about the opportunities: Pharma companies can improve their customer insight from an ongoing focus group, reduce time to market for new drugs by understanding risks faster and more quickly, and have a stronger connection to customers, making marketing more efficient.

If you know of any pharma companies that have turned a blind eye, or have embraced the conversation, please leave a comment below.

Update: I added “Some” pharma companies as the new title in the post.

19 Replies to “Troubled, Some Pharmaceuticals Turn a Blind Eye to the Blogosphere”

  1. Sounds about right for that industry. They are constantly causing me to take another look at regulation. I’m a free-market kind of guy – but the Pharma industry just seems to be anti-wellness, inhumane, unAmerican, and I honestly don’t feel like I’m exaggerating.

    They will get theirs.

    Good post!

  2. Not all pharma companies are so draconian in their practices.

    While I was working on a cancer blockbuster, we tracked opinions and thoughts of a group of patients on Yahoo groups. The trials were in phase II and III before the drug went to market. We often knew what side effects were emerging before the doctors reported then in the investigator meetings. This gave the clinical team time to prepare for the news and develop advice for managing them, eg steroid cream for rash etc. It also gives marketing an opportunity to develop materials ahead of time.

    As a marketing person, I used to put together a weekly series of “The Good, Bad and The Ugly” for the team based on the patient feedback. If there were complaints, I put them in and the team would strategise would could be done to improve things. The good news about their treatment and the company would motivate those working on the project no end.

    Did monitoring the patient feedback from a variety of sources (including blogs) help? You betcha! It was considered a novel idea at the time and the power of the web is immense.

    That said, I have done consulting work at companies who have clearly blocked access to common blog platforms because they did not want their employees distracted from work. My pharma friends therefore read my blog at home on their own computers and send any comments by email rather than on the blog.

  3. I do.

    Pharma is a great example of why extreme care needs to be taken with the development of social media. It’s what I would call a dangerous opportunity.

    Jeremiah, I am totally with you on this, but perhaps I can help you understand the challenge.

    There are valid reasons why pharmaceutical companies and CROs are afraid of social media, but unfortunately most of the companies have made the mistake of letting their fears overcome wisdom.

    What you have to understand is that if a consumer reports an adverse event to a company (anybody in the company in whatever medium), there are federally mandated regulations about the timeframe in which that event gets assessed and reported.

    So if a company is going to have an interface, it’s going to have to really design the whole process with everything in mind–this is a greater challenge than for most companies.

    I think it’s this stumbling block (in conjunction with the general cultural traits that accompany the industry) that poses the greatest challenge.

    I think Pharma would do itself (and the community) are huge favor by intelligently evolving remarkable forms of social media into its business model. But recognize that it’s going to be a real engineering effort on their part.

    Which means: this is a GREAT opportunity.

    Email me or call me if you’d like a some first-hand insight into the matter. It’s free (and my duty as an RN who has worked in the industry to make it so much better).

    Glad you brought this up. It’s been on my mind too.

  4. I think Sally’s example is an excellent one, but few pharma companies are thinking like that (or at least few show evidence of such thinking).

    I used to consult in the pharma/biotech industry, so I’m fully aware of the level of fear of transgressing any legal or regulatory boundaries are. Because litigation has become so rampant, pharma is overly concerned about what it can and can’t say in a public marketplace. Ironically, pharma opened this Pandora’s Box itself, when it pushed for direct-to-consumer advertising.

    Further, the clinical trial process is one that is based on large cohorts of statistically significant data. While responding to individual complaints or even very small groups of complaints may be good for PR and marketing purposes, this won’t necessarily further the drug development process.

    At the end of the day, those companies that are willing to be creative (like Sally’s) and effectively use customer insights will be the ones that will be rewarded. Just don’t expect them to join the conversation as readily as other consumer industries.

  5. I don’t think I can add much more to the discussion above. There are very valid reasons as listed above.

    I will add that pharma researchers (as opposed to those in regulatory or development) are quite active in the blogosphere, at least as consumers. Derek Lowe works in the pharma industry and blogs regularly and has one of the most respected blogs in the world. Keith Robison used to be at Millenium and was once again a very respected blogger and if traffic to my blog and discussions I’ve had with various people at conferences were anything to go by, reading blogs by researchers was a active part of how they kept abreast of what was going on scientifically.

    FWIW my parent company till recently was big pharma and I blogged regularly without issue.

    But using blogs etc, in the way described above is something that companies have to be very vary about. In fact I would argue that adverse event reporting is only useful for drug development when the event goes into a central adverse event repository where the signal can be observed in context as part of the pharmacovigilance systems most companies are developing (slowly). Otherwise there are too many liabilities, variables, and uncertainties, so there is good reason to be careful.

  6. The thing with adverse event reporting is a moot one. Where we came across some worrying events, we simply had the clinical department contact the centre concerned and encourage reporting it both while it was in the trials and also post market approval. This kind of transparency is good for the industry.

    Where I, and others, erred on the side of caution was jumping in commenting or interacting. A person cannot be the voice of the company, nor can they offer advice. Concerns about the FDA seeing comments as promotional are real and taken seriously.

    The balance though, is that those companies who take it to extremes and ban even reading of material for fear of what might happen, is perhaps an unreasonable one in my view. Sensible people will use the information in creative ways internally for the greater good, rather than getting the company in hot water.

    It’s fear of what might happen that drives the finance and pharma industries, not what good might come of it.

  7. Whoa. Great commentary on groundswell & big pharma. I have friends in the pharmaceutical industry, and they’ve been blockaded by legal and conventional means. Groundswell is going to play a big role in their battle to launch drugs that help the public, not fleece them. I’m passing this along to them.

  8. This is a very interesting post. However, I am not very impressed w/ J&J, which resembles more of a “push” site.

    And in an unscientific sample review, only 6 of the first 30 GSK posts featured comments, which I know is still 20%, and the aggregate number of comments were still relatively small. I give them credit, but I have a sense that come “budget review” time, these metrics will not help support an ongoing and costly maintenance budget.

  9. Jeremiah,

    Just my opinion based on a lot of time I have spent with pharma companies over the past years but the three primary reasons this industry hasn’t embraced social media are – fear, legal mis-perceptions and lack of executive vision.

    Hiding behind adverse event reporting is just an excuse. There are no FDA regulations preventing companies from leveraging the Web to improve patient care. In fact, they would encourage that.

    The FDA itself is now keeping tabs on what consumers say online so how can brands say they better not do it? That’s why the feds last year looked into the possible link between Chantix and the death of Carter Albrecht of the rock group Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians.

    If 50,000 physicians are discussing known health care issues on social networks like SERMO, how can the industry say they didn’t know a problem existed?

    I do believe pharma companies are starting to come around though and we will see more openness to new ideas in this area in the future.

  10. Like Mike said above – does big pharma even have the very thin veil of plausible deniability when a 6th grader could identify the relevant conversation with free tools in an afternoon?


  11. There is often a tendency to assign complicated motivations to things that have simple answers.
    The Pharma industry has a much higher legal and regulatory responsibility than most industries. There is no doubt that this makes it harder to have real conversations and complicates the issue of AE awareness and reporting.

    But I think the _real_ challenge is that having real conversations is hard. It requires development of a core competency and it requires a top down commitment and vison. These are not easy things for _any_ company, let alone one that has to have every comment pre-screened and approved.

    This is further complicated by the fact that most Pharma companies are organized around the concept of semi-autonomous “brands” and supporting internal functional groups that have little incentive to work together to develop core competencies or scalable programs. Add a long term legacy of often deeply embedded processes and systems…

    It is very possible to do this, and I believe that we are making progress, but it requires a new way of thinking and organizing.

    I try to address these topics, from time to time, on _my_ blog –

    Disclaimer: I work for a large Pharma company, but my thoughts and opinions are my own.

  12. I don’t know how they could ignore it. With the networking opportunities everywhere and constant feedback via social media, companies are forced to be honest. Unfortunately, being honest is near impossible for pharmaceutical companies…

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