Pharma gets social: Debriefing on ‘that’ Guardian transparency story – part one

In the first of a two-part ‘Pharma gets social’ piece this month, Paul Grant dissects the social media conversations and online communication that took place following the Guardian’s recent article on data transparency.

Readers of this column are familiar with the difficulty that the pharmaceutical industry sometimes faces in managing its reputation in the eyes of the general public. During July 2013, it once again experienced something of a ‘shared blow’ on this front.

An article by Guardian News and Media science correspondent Ian Sample, published online and then subsequently in the following day’s printed newspaper, claimed that two leading pharmaceutical trade groups had ‘”mobilised” an army of patient groups to lobby against plans to force companies to publish secret documents on drugs trials.

Sounding somewhat sinister and intriguing, it is the sort of story that might gain social traction around the world. It most certainly did.

“Sounding somewhat sinister and intriguing, it is the sort of story that might gain social traction around the world.”


Dissecting the key communications lifeline

As with all limited-life stories, we see various peaks and troughs denoting key items of communication and the impact they had on the conversation ecosystem. The main inflexion points commence with the launch of the story on Sunday 21st July 2103.

The growth in interest continues through sharing and commentary on that piece; then is marked by what could essentially be called the ‘industry response’ – occurring on and around Wednesday 24th July 2013.

Figure 1 – Two peaks are clearly seen when you analyse the topics over time; the story breaking and the industry responding. A third smaller series of peaks illustrate articles with the benefit of the issue from all sides.

Looking at the week as whole, there was a 2-3 days response time for a reactive statement from the pharmaceutical industry. Is that acceptable?

Human bias and pharma’s reputation

In this case, the appetite for the story was immediately apparent. In an almost unquestioning manner and with preconditioned bias, people tended to re-tweet and share the story; only a few added an opinion or further commentary to the initial premise of the story.

However, it was pharmaphorum’s own CEO, Paul Tunnah, who provided some early questioning and something of a voice for reason. His call on Twitter was for a more complete picture of the story behind the story.

Figure 2 – Paul Tunnah suggests that without the full picture, the story is really somewhat incomplete.

Adam Jacobs also felt there was more to the story, and made a point of supposing that there could only be “…4 reasons why the article might not have revealed the memo“.

“In this case, the appetite for the story was immediately apparent.”

Closing the loop

It was at the end of the week when Craig Sharp, Editor of industry-focused eyeforpharma, contributed the missing details in his own version of events. He, unlike Sample, provided the raw memo in full (redacted to remove personally identifiable data) upon which any reader could build an informed viewpoint. Having also personally interviewed Richard Bergström, the author of the memo and Director General of the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations (EFPIA), Sharp’s exposé also explained how “taken in isolation, it’s a great story” but that for the most part “the media, rather than remaining unbiased and impartial, have put a sinister spin on what is in reality, quite a benign piece of paper“.

As the old Proverb says;

“The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.”

Anatomy of a viral story

Despite the rigour of the Sharp article, and indeed the subsequent full publication of the original ‘leaked memo’ in question, it by comparison did not receive anything like the favourable level of social reach and commentary of the initial story.


Figure 3 – Comparison between the social sharing and engagement metrics of two different articles on the pharmaceutical industry and transparency around clinical trials data. (Note: data correct as at 31/07/2013)

Both articles were hosted on websites featuring equally accessible social sharing buttons, yet it is clear that each story was broadly popular on different channels.

Twitter, Google+, Facebook were instrumental in reaching the wider audience which engaged around the Sample story, whereas it was Twitter and LinkedIn that were the channels of engagement for the Sharp story. For a pharmaceutical company, these are the locations where they could potentially engage on such issues – surely a great rationale for ‘getting social’.

Investigating the analytics data for clicks per day, there is a clear ‘virality’ for the first story, missing from the second story.

Figure 4 – The reach of The Guardian article within the general public, combined with ‘conspiracy’, creating a greater engagement online than the more complete article later in the week (Note: data correct as at 05/08/2013, Source: and )

All things considered, is it surprising that the ‘leak’ story was so much more ‘viral’? From my perspective, there are some significant contributors:

1. A ‘breaking’ story which resonates with human behavioural bias

2. A well-leveraged conversational platform

3. Digital opinion leaders

4. No reasonable defence in the heat of the moment


“All things considered, is it surprising that the ‘leak’ story was so much more ‘viral’?”

Engaging or reacting

Of course the pharmaceutical industry did react and provide some defence, albeit slowly. The record was indeed finally set straight, although at 2-3 days after the event – it was arguably too late.

In my opinion ‘engaging’ is the new ‘reacting’.

Consider this metaphor:

There is a house party. Many people are inside, and you are watching from an outside window. You can clearly see what is going on, and you can even see a group of people who are specifically talking about you. One quite vocal ‘influencer’ is saying something which is simply not true, or is at the very least out of context. The problem is… you are not in the conversation. It will take time to get into that room, to then establish a reciprocal relationship with the people, and to position your view on the matter. No amount of banging on the window or shouting from the outside will help. And, by the time you are in the right place, that conversation will be over and you have missed the opportunity.

So too with industry strategies for ‘social media listening’, or for broadcast-only messages through social media accounts; unless you are actually in the conversation on a regular basis, you will not have the connection to be able to proposition a different viewpoint credibly.

We can learn from the various communication strategies adopted by stakeholders to manage their own (and the industry’s) reputation in response to this breaking story. In part two next week, we will explore the critical timeline around this issue, together with practical advice for approaching such potential reputational crises in the future.

Part two of this article can be viewed here.



About the author:

Paul Grant is Chief Innovation Officer with Creation Healthcare, based in the United Kingdom. He provides analysis and strategic recommendations for the world’s top pharmaceutical and healthcare organisations. You can find him watching the party from the window, and occasionally participating at @paulgrant

Do you agree: is engaging the new reacting?