GSK puts people and passion into social media engagement in East Africa

This month, Daniel Ghinn investigates how company executives who are natural, informative and engaging on social media can create a positive image for their corporation.

Pharmaceutical executives are not usually known for their social media engagement, preferring, in most cases, to let their company’s corporate communications team provide the public social media interface to their operations. The resulting social media communication can sometimes come across as somewhat disengaged or awkward, as communications teams and individuals attempt to find a balance between corporate and personal communication styles.

In this context, Dr Allan Pamba is a breath of fresh air. Originally trained as a physician in Kenya, his early career included working in clinical care for the country’s government services and mission hospitals. Today Dr Pamba is VP pharmaceuticals, East Africa for GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), where he focuses on the sustainable delivery of medicines and vaccines in Africa through innovative business models. Or, as he introduced himself in a recent online debate hosted by The Guardian: ‘Hi, Allan from GSK here. I’m an African-trained physician working with GSK, supporting our efforts to drive better access to our medicines and vaccines in Africa.’

Active in social media

In social media, as well as taking part in the live debate hosted by The Guardian, Dr Pamba writes regularly for the Huffington Post and he has been interviewed on YouTube videos.

In the Guardian debate, which took place over a two-hour window on 26 June 2014 and focused on health systems in poor countries, Dr Pamba joined a panel of experts from government advisors, not-for-profit organisations and NGOs who took live questions from the public via the comments section of a post on Guardian.com, with a simultaneous and ongoing discussion taking place on Twitter using hashtag #globaldevlive.

“We’re always happy to contribute where we can in digital engagement around health”

Janet Morgan, director corporate reporting and content with GSK, said that Dr Pamba’s engagement aligns with the company’s corporate approach: “The way Allan takes part in the discussions is similar to the way we see our discussions generally. We’re always happy to contribute where we can in digital engagement around health – particularly the role of business in helping to improve access to quality, innovative healthcare.”

Representing the pharma industry

More than 200 comments were posted during the debate, which covered topics including healthcare infrastructure and access, the millennium development goals, and partnership working between stakeholders. In a sense, Dr Pamba represented not only GSK but the pharmaceutical industry as a whole in the discussion.

‘We’ve all got a part to play in the dialogue around UHC [Universal Health Care] – including the pharmaceutical sector,’ posted Dr Pamba in one comment, reflecting on the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations’ (IFPMA) publication on pharma perspectives on UHC. ‘As an industry, we’ve drawn up eight principles – such as equitable access and inclusiveness – to help inform the design of UHC policies. These have been created in the knowledge that each country’s health system is different and, for some, it will take a very long time to truly reach UHC.’

Public health advocacy

In his current role at GSK Dr Pamba has clearly not left behind his interest in public health in developing countries, a subject he studied at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. Responding to a question about the big challenges health systems will be facing in the future, he said that health systems needed more skilled managers: ‘The emerging dual disease burden of infectious disease and [Non-Communicable Diseases] will increasingly become one of them. Poor health information systems and data is another, leading to non-evidence based allocation of limited budgets, inefficiencies and wastage. Health systems need stronger, more skilled managers – investing in developing this capacity would give a significant return,’ he posted, noting that GSK was investing to support these recommendations: ‘That’s why we’re planning to support 25 academic chairs at universities across Africa.’

“We do our best to participate and help our senior leaders contribute – be it through tweeting, blogging or taking part in live Q&As – wherever they are in the world”

Morgan said that social media was enabling GSK to play an effective part in conversations about improving health systems. “Digital media enables people from many different geographies and sectors – business, not-for-profit and civil society – to take part and help shape the debate,” she pointed out. “When asked by other organisations to contribute to digital conversations, we do our best to participate and help our senior leaders contribute – be it through tweeting, blogging or taking part in live Q&As – wherever they are in the world.”

In another example during the discussion hosted by The Guardian, Dr Pamba again responded to comments by reflecting on what GSK was doing practically to support collaboration with other stakeholders: ‘Really interesting points raised about data. Completely agree. Indeed, we’re working with Vodafone piloting an m-health solution targeted at increasing vaccine uptake and improving efficiencies in vaccine supply chain management in country. If successful, this could increase vaccine uptake by up to 15 per cent.’

He went on to explain why the Vodafone collaboration was important in Africa: ‘All this is drawing on the ubiquitous mobile phone in Africa, a simple technology which can be leveraged as a platform for ensuring a better flow of information within the health system.’

It’s about people

In the world of pharmaceutical corporate engagement it is refreshing to see Dr Pamba’s passion for health systems, and his clearly expressed belief that fair access to health is entirely compatible with a healthcare company’s commercial goals too. I wonder when this model of personal engagement, coming from a GSK executive in East Africa, will be seen in the pharmaceutical industry’s developed corporate environments of Europe or the US?

I’ll leave the last words to Dr Pamba, in one of his comments in the Guardian discussion: ‘At the heart of this debate is People.’

Daniel’s next article will go live in October.

About the author:

Daniel Ghinn is CEO of Creation Healthcare, where he advises pharmaceutical brands using insights from healthcare professionals in public social media.

Daniel Tweets at @EngagementStrat.

Have your say: What can other pharma companies learn from this more open approach?