Monday, March 2, 2009

Putting a Face on Pharma

“Social media is the last best hope to redo the image of the pharmaceutical industry.” --Jack Barrette, Wego Health at 2009 ePharma conference

Sitting in the audience at ePharma, this statement really resonated with me. On-going, positive interactions offer the possibility of rebuilding the social capital that Pharma, and much of American business has lost over the past ten years. Social media provides the channel for Pharma to engage in meaningful one-to-one or one-to-many interactions with the people their products help.

Pharma has begun dipping it’s toes into the social media water, largely from a corporate media perspective. As social media moves from a corporate communications to a brand building tool, the question becomes “who should serve as the face of the brand?” I believe that physicians and scientists are an underutilized resource in the creation of a public persona for Pharma brands. If your medicine’s personality is warm, sincere or progressive, wouldn’t a warm, sincere or progressive physicians or scientists be a good representative of the brand?

I remember sitting in a POA meeting and being blown away by the sincerity, warmth and caring conveyed by a Zoloft team physician talking about his patients. I thought, if only the public could meet Dr. John, see how pharmaceutical employees really care, then maybe we had a chance at redemption (and that was in the pre-Vioxx days, before Pharma sunk to it’s all time lows of today).

So what form could this interaction take?

Go to the community: Some brand’s relationship marketing materials already contain columns of advice from their team physicians. Why not make it live by offering your physician to spend an hour in a chat room or forum of a patient community. Physicians obviously know how to report an Adverse Event or how to shut down an off-label discussion. The key is to be upfront about any constraints. Providing a medical expert for an hour or two could be of real value to a community.

Get in the debate: Astra Zeneca used YouTube to respond to the article “ 8 Drugs Doctors Would Never Take.” The company placed a video on YouTube of their team physician, Dr. Doug Levine, discussing why the company believed that the article was misleading in regards to Nexium and Prilosec. Astra Zeneca further girded the credibility of their response by providing relevant websites for people to gain more information. This represents a real step up from the usual corporate spokesperson response in print.

Use a digital megaphone: Putting a video on YouTube is an excellent way to convey a company’s point-of-view. However, most pharmaceutical videos are seen by very few people. After 7 months of availability, the Astra Zeneca video referenced above was only viewed by 4,000 people. A quick Google search did not turn up the video in the first 3 pages which is far more trouble than what most consumers are willing to take to find information. Applying a little SEO/SEM would go a long way to getting your message heard.

Be proactive: There is no need to wait for an issue to start using social media. Create a platform. In fact, many pharmaceutical companies are starting to do just that. Novartis regularly issues press updates over Twitter. Various companies such as J&J and Abbott have YouTube channels.

There is an opportunity to build on this presence by presenting more of a point of view and soliciting one back. Congress has recently launched their House and Senate hubs to provide increased “access and transparency” to the workings of government. There’s even a little personality thrown in-Nancy Pelosi’s channel offers “Capitol Cat Cam.” Consumers are increasingly lodging their opinions about companies and brands using social media and it is important that Pharmaceutical companies have a “like” platform from which to respond.

But no matter what form your interaction takes, it is important to be authentic and genuine. One of the learnings from Dell Hell according to Mei Lin Fung from the Institute of Service Organization Excellence Inc is that you need to “Think before you talk—but always be yourself.” Showing your authentically caring and transparent self, putting a real face on Pharma presents the first opportunity in a long time to regaining the trust of the American public.



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