The challenges of the PMCPA new social media guidelines

Sales & Marketing
social media

The Prescription Medicines Code of Practice Authority (PMCPA) has recently published new social media guidance to help pharma companies apply the high standards demanded by the industry's Code of Practice to all their online communications channels. The ABPI Code sets out the rules which govern the promotion of prescription medicines to UK health professionals and other relevant decision-makers. It also sets standards for providing information about prescription-only medicines to the public.

The Life Science Law team has collectively worked for many years in-house and, latterly, spending an inordinate amount of time supporting the corporate communications teams on finessing materials for compliant dissemination on social media. Ensuring LinkedIn channels were confined to a particular audience to ensure materials published were appropriate for the audience and writing social media policies to provide guidance on which channels to use for what, was commonplace. Therefore, we know first-hand the importance of such guidelines and the challenges they pose and, while they are a helpful starting point, there is still a degree of uncertainty and greyness which we believe needs to be considered.

What do the guidelines cover?

The PMCPA Social Media Guidance 2023 covers companies' use of corporate social media channels and employees' personal use of those channels. In particular, it reminds companies of the relevant laws and Code provisions that apply in different cases within the UK, and the principles companies need to be mindful of when using or interacting with social media.

It also looks at the use of social media in specific situations, such as clinical trial recruitment, patient support, working with influencers, job advertising, and announcing product or pipeline milestones.

Challenges of the guidance

There are a series of challenges that need to be addressed with the guidelines. For example, particular difficulty arises where a communications team is based in the US and the campaign/audience is global in nature and, whilst it may be compliant to talk about product to the general public in the US, if the audience includes the UK then it is foreseeable that there could be a UK Code breach, for which the UK arm of the corporation would be culpable.  

Secondly, the guidance is the first codified parameter on how to use social media compliantly and is built from the myriad cases that have been handled by the PMCPA. It is a helpful starting point, yet how the guidance is interpreted will still turn on subjective viewpoints, which will cause angst within review teams. In these circumstances, the in-house lawyer is often required to provide an independent viewpoint between those of medical and marketing, which is balanced in terms of an interpretation of the regulations and risk. 

Finally, it is the medical signatories’ reputation on the line should they sign off materials that later lead to a hearing before the PMCPA. Given pharma companies need to take into account the actions of third parties over which they have no control, a conservative approach is often taken, which, in some cases, can cause unnecessary internal conflict between medical and marketing. While companies must and do provide internal guidance and training, to me it seems wholly unfair and doesn't align with the way in which our legal system works to be responsible and culpable over actions you have no control over, particularly where efforts have been taken to ensure the third party is aware of the parameters and process.

The new social media guidance recently published by the PMCPA is a welcome development and will certainly help pharma companies ensure they uphold the high standards demanded by the Code of Practice, which the industry supports. However, there are some areas where additional clarity is needed that we have discussed, particularly when it comes to international communications. 

With an ever-increasing focus on regulatory compliance, it's essential that pharma companies approach new guidance with a robust understanding of what is expected of them, and how to adhere to these expectations. 

About the author

Wendy Lloyd-GoodwinWendy Lloyd-Goodwin is a solicitor and the founder of Life Science Law, with more than 20 years of professional experience in the life sciences sector. A leading expert in pharmaceuticals, consumer well-being products, and medical devices, Lloyd-Goodwin has also built and managed in-house legal and compliance teams in several multi-national organisations.  

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