Inside view: joining the social world from within big pharma

Paul Tunnah interviews Gillian Tachibana

Merck Serono

It doesn’t take very long on Google to discover that there are a million different views flying around about how the pharma industry should be using social media – what it’s doing right, what it’s doing wrong and, more often than not, what the regulators should be telling it to do. It’s probably fair to say that most of these opinions are being voiced from those sitting outside big pharma companies, whether they are consultants, healthcare providers, patients or industry observers.

However, whilst big pharma may not always shout out its opinions so loudly every company is working hard to understand how to best engage in this new digital world and use it to leverage the information. It’s worth recognising therefore that the view from inside pharma, where regulations and the way which engagement is handled appropriately with healthcare providers and patients are regarded as of critically important, is a little different. So we caught up with Gillian Tachibana, from Merck Serono, to get the inside view on pharma social media and how the industry can engage.

Interview summary:

PT: Hi Gillian and thanks for your time today. Now, as Director of Social and eMedia Communications at Merck Serono digital is clearly within your remit, but what kind of activities do you specifically get most involved in?

GT: Thank you for inviting me. My team is globally responsible for all web (internet and intranet) and social media matters for Merck Serono, including the Web Governance and policy related to such activities. I specifically get involved with the Web Governance matters, leading the cross-functional team that determines policy and process, and ensuring that all projects or programs follow policy, standards and guidelines. I am also involved in the high-level web and social media strategies for Merck Serono, as well as lead specific research on trends in the new medias. That’s the nut-shell version…

“…the opportunity to listen and monitor before engaging, allows us to define a more focused conversation…”

PT: Pharma faces many challenges in relation to social media, most specifically the high level of regulation, so why is it worth investing so much energy on this type of engagement in such a tightly controlled industry?

GT: You’ve said “so much energy”: to me, it seems that the same amount of energy is allotted to investing in social media as it is for any other digital programme, it’s just a different kind of energy owing to the different opportunities that social or digital media presents to all industries, when communicating many-to-many or engaging the public in open conversation. Pharma’s business model (due to tight regulations, you mention) puts us in a situation where pharma needs to explore different ways of utilizing social media other than what typical consumer industries can do. We still face the same challenges as for classic websites of not being able to promote drug therapies directly to the public (with the exception of the US and New Zealand). What makes the digital medias so worth investing any time in is particularly the opportunity to weigh in on the collective intelligence, measuring trends, tone and sentiment about your company or its products and services. You cannot do this real-time with classic websites, and let’s face it, people are not that interested in answering online polls. So the opportunity to listen and monitor before engaging, allows us to define a more focused conversation or ways to reach out to interested parties or even including those parties in how to improve services.

PT: So in what areas of interaction do you see the potential for social media initiatives driven by pharma to have the most benefit?

GT: I’m going to say that it’s those non-tangible or indirect initiatives which have benefitted most our industry. For example, I mentioned the analysis of the collective intelligence and listening. As I mentioned in the last question, listening to the collective voice allows us to fine-tune services, and in some cases, it has allowed pharma to improve drug delivery or identify the motivation for to further clinical study. An example of an indirect impact, whether inspired by pharma or non-pharma initiatives, is the sociological and cultural change in the type of influential conversation taking place by the rise of the ePatient or powerful opinion leaders such as the Mommy-bloggers. Social media has given us the opportunity to hear what you need, how you need it. That’s the condensed version of my response. I could go on… 🙂

“Social media has given us the opportunity to hear what you need, how you need it.”

PT: When you look at what online initiatives are being conducted within healthcare, both by pharma and other groups, which stand out for you as the most successful and models that others should learn from?

GT: OK, I have to admit, I am more a “glass half empty” rather than a “glass half full” person, so I’d say that those models and activities that give us the example of what not to do are extremely useful. I commend those pharmas that took the first step – they are the pioneers today in the many successful pharma social media campaigns and services, especially the ones that combine social media with useful mobile applications successfully, it takes a lot of thought and planning to ensure the different checks and balances for these communities or platforms to bear their fruit. Then there are the corporate movers and shakers that published their social media policy online transparently expressing their intentions to engage in the digital space. There are many other inspiring models and campaigns out there, I’d love to give credit to them all.

Pharma social media initiatives that are locally driven (as opposed to global or international initiatives) have a higher rate of success bearing in mind the linguistic and cultural differences, and even the digital divide or the age group. With regard to the health-related businesses, there’s been a significant up-take in social media use by clinics, hospitals and physician offices, mostly using facebook to serve as marketing platforms, and we see quite a few physicians tweeting or blogging regularly and gaining significant influence both with the general public and in our industry.

PT: And looking outside pharma, what can we learn about using digital media from other industries?

GT: There are many examples of other industries leveraging the social media space to improve reputation or customer services. The two classic examples that come to mind are Shell, facing environmentalists and Dell, when after monitoring the web for sentiment, they realized they could improve customer service and loyalty by communicating, communicating, communicating.

“There are many examples of other industries leveraging the social media space to improve reputation or customer services.”

Other pure consumer models are found in the auto industry that uses social media to drive sales or the food &amp, beverage industry that offer coupons or discounts, of course there are countless others. Back to your question around what pharma can learn from these industries: thinking outside our regulated business model, social media gives pharma the opportunity to develop a voice and a personality if real employees are behind the digital platforms and not a 3rd party PR company – it makes pharma a little more accessible, and allows us to show a more human side to our research efforts rather than depending on black text on white background websites. Mobile applications are giving us the opportunity to put more tools (useful or not is another discussion) in the hands of the health-seeker, supporting his/her empowerment. I commend those pharma cos with flu vaccines that provide timely information about flu seasons and had really stepped up in the past to continue communicating during times of flu crisis.

Naturally, pharma cannot reproduce what other industries may easily do (direct sales, coupons…) but we can take away the lesson that communicating with a sense of urgency or importance is better than no communication at all.

PT: Which regions are currently the most conducive to conducting healthcare social media initiatives and why?

GT: Suffice it to say the US can do DTCA, so brand campaigns can directly engage the patient groups, whereas in EU and ROW, campaigns are mostly disease focused, non-branded educational or directed at the HCP. And although if you consult the Global Trend Stream or Web Index, there’s a global surge in the use of social media, though for pharma, it seems that due to stricter regulations in other markets, the US is the region with the most pharma social media initiatives.

PT: And finally, how have you seen your company evolve most in its use of digital media, both internally and for external activities, over your time there?

GT: Absolutely! I’ve been with Merck Serono for nearly 12 years now, and with the evolution of our management, we’ve been fortunate to have top executives enthusiastic to introduce new ways of communicating both internally and externally! Like many companies, we went from static to dynamic starting around 2001 and 2002, to really encouraging open and transparent communications internally in 2007. So the addition of enterprise social media was a natural move, and is serving as educational programs at the same time. As for external-facing digital media, stay-tuned for more growth shortly… ,-)

PT: Gillian, thanks again for your time and for sharing your insights.

About the interviewee:

Educated in International Relations and Swiss Law, with a specialization in eCommunications from the Geneva University Hautes études commerciales, Gillian Tachibana has been with Merck Serono’s Communications Department for nearly twelve years developing and managing the company’s worldwide Internet, Intranet and Social Media Strategies, as well as managing Web Governance.

Gillian’s role is to ensure the implementation and shape the evolution of Merck Serono’s approach to the digital sphere balancing industry regulations and business needs.

Prior to joining Merck Serono, Gillian held several positions of responsibility at Air Freight and Telecommunications companies, both headquartered in Switzerland, respectively as Director of Operations, and Director of MIS &amp, Customer Service.

LinkedIn: Gillian Tachibana de Llull

Twitter: @pharmaweb

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