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

In the second and final part of this month’s Pharma gets social, Paul Grant provides a timeline of events that followed the Guardian’s story on data transparency and shares his advice on how the situation could have been resolved quicker. In particular, Paul looks at the articles and comments made by key opinion leaders on social media channels, such as Twitter, and also how pharma reacted to the news.

(Continued from “Pharma gets social: Debriefing on ‘that’ Guardian transparency story – part one“)

In part one of this article, we looked at a public challenge to the pharmaceutical industry’s reputation, which was raised by an article in The Guardian, published late in July 2013. The industry’s formal response to this challenge arrived some two to three days later, and it was a full five days later before the complete context of the story came to the general public; to some extent vindicating the industry from the allegations, albeit after the proverbial storm had passed.

Let us now debrief on the significant events to learn from the communication strategies adopted by various stakeholders to manage their own (and the industry’s) reputation, in response to the breaking story.

Sunday 21st July 2013:

• The Guardian story is published on a Sunday.1

o Practical advice: Online monitoring and alert systems can detect breaking news on weekends and public holidays – such that an on-call media team colleague could know about this and be working on a response that evening, ready for the next working day.

o Practical advice: Given the story was in print the following day, had action been taken in the evening, it would have been possible to present an alternate view published in a competing paper (and naturally online as well), the next day.

If nothing else, a simple proactive strategy would have let the general public know via social channels that a new statement on transparency and collaboration was planned for release in two days’ time. This may have helped to temper the enthusiasm of many, until more information was available.

“…a simple proactive strategy would have let the general public know via social channels that a new statement on transparency and collaboration was planned for release…”

• A couple of medical students see the story soon after it is published and tweet about the article. This is interesting, because oftentimes it is medical students who are potential influencers in the health ecosystem, despite their lack of qualification or experience. Their ‘social savvy’ in this case is to pick up the story quickly and help it to ‘break’.

o Practical advice: Do not underestimate the influence of students in social media. Consider what, if any, strategies you have for connecting with medical students who are the healthcare professionals of the future. They are ‘digital natives’ and have a predisposed expectation that they will be able to connect with people and companies through social channels. If they are onside with the position in a debate, there is a wide reach. Likewise, they can ‘mobilise’ rapidly though their virtual and real-life networks to encourage an issue into the mainstream.

• @BenGoldacre picks up on the story and tweets to his 286,758 followers with the words ‘For Shame’; also linking to the hashtag #alltrials – connected with an initiative of which he is a founding member. This is retweeted 103 times, and based on social intelligence indicators this tweet alone had an effective reach of about 40,000 people.

o Practical advice: Know who the digital opinion leaders are, and be aware of what they are saying – constantly.

Which pharmaceutical company, individual or industry body first saw this issue escalating? Which was ready to engage with Ben and set the record straight, or enter into a constructive dialogue?

Even if such action created an open debate, the public (and a large number of followers) would be watching and forming their own opinions.

As mentioned in part one, it can be truly beneficial to be active in the conversation in an on-going way, to be transparent, and to be able to respond early and accurately when misinformation or allegation breaks.

EFPIA knew the full story, as did Richard Bergström, as did the recipients of the memo.

Actually, any of these entities if empowered to engage, might have helped preserve the reputation of the industry in that all-important and initial public ‘frenzy’.


“Know who the digital opinion leaders are, and be aware of what they are saying – constantly.”

Monday 22nd July 2013:

• +AllTrials publishes a page with ‘media coverage’ and a position on why pharmaceutical companies must “distance themselves from their trade bodies’ leaked strategy.”2 Interestingly, this list at the time of writing appears to still only focus on one side of the story, failing to show the balance of the newer information which is now publicly available.

o Practical advice: Some companies are members of this initiative, some are not. Even so, transparency is not something that can be defended reactively. It is something which is better evidenced through continuous and ongoing statements and updates to the general public about the commitment to the appropriate use of clinical data.

What does your content calendar look like on this important topic?

• Industry website Pharmafile writes a variation of the story, also considering clinical trials transparency in the context of the European Medicines Agency (EMA)3

• Adam Jacobs of Dianthus Medical feels there was a confirmation bias at play, and questioned why the Guardian did not reveal the memo4

Tuesday 23rd July 2013:

 • Another industry website PharmaTimes adds commentary from the perspective of several patient organisations, pointing to comments such as the European Patients’ Forum who replied directly within the Guardian comments section – refuting that their funding partners have previously or could potentially exert any power to ‘mobilise’ them5

 o Practical advice: Which, if any, pharmaceutical companies immediately reached out to those patient groups with which they have a funding or other sponsored connection? What key messages and reassurances were provided to give them certainty that their own organisational reputation was not going to be smeared?

Wednesday 24th July 2013:

• The European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations (EFPIA) and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) endorse “Principles for Responsible Clinical Trial Data Sharing: Our Commitment to Patients and Researchers”. This is the clearly long-developed piece which the ‘leaked’ internal memo was in reference to.6

o Practical advice: A simple pre-emptive announcement that this was due to be released, together with the all-important original memo, released (redacted for confidentiality purposes) on the Monday in response to the Guardian article, could have averted considerable effort required by all stakeholders involved to reposition what was, after all, a positive move by the global pharmaceutical industry.


“Reputational damage is done in the first hearing of the scandal, not in the truth emerging much later on.”

• The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) makes a statement of support for the new principles.7

• Pfizer releases a statement of support for the new principles.8

o Practical advice: PDF is not a particularly ‘shareable’ format, so despite the effort in authoring the message, it is likely to be lost in terms of building reputation and winning the support of communities.

• Lilly places a position statement of support on its blog and LillyPad.com9,10

o Practical advice: Maintaining a blog is a potentially rapid way to present thought pieces, and to enable controlled conversation. The challenge to industry is that the actual conversation was clearly occurring on the Guardian website – that is the place where pharmaceutical companies or organisations might fear to tread; for the willing, that is where the metaphorical party is!

o Practical advice: A blog post (Lilly) or a PDF statement (Pfizer) is commendable, and probably the bare minimum in ‘participating’ in the conversation. The challenge to the industry is that this is too little too late, and in the wrong place and the wrong format.

Reputational damage is done in the first hearing of the scandal, not in the truth emerging much later on.

There are countless examples of people who have been smeared by the media, later acquitted, yet remain tarnished for life with a stigma attached to them. So too, the pharmaceutical industry will also carry a permanent stigma until it begins to speak proactively, consistently, and ‘in the moment’ – rather than days after a message is approved for general release.

• A pharmaphorum article carries balanced coverage of the EFPIA/PhRMA announcement11

• Industry website Pharmafile now suggests that “This will frustrate the likes of UK charity Sense about Science and Dr Ben Goldacre, who founded the AllTrials campaign – an initiative seeking complete disclosure of all trial information for greater scrutiny.”12

Thursday 25th July 2013:

• Health Action International (HAI) Europe releases a statement still concerned “…about the intention that EFPIA and PhRMA expressed in their leaked strategy to mobilise patient organisations to fight their corner to maintain data secrecy.”13


“…the pharmaceutical industry will also carry a permanent stigma until it begins to speak proactively, consistently, and ‘in the moment’…”

Friday 26th July 2013:

• eyeforpharma releases two stories informed by the complete memo and a new interview with EFPIA Director General, showing more complete detail of the overall data transparency initiative.14

o Practical advice: Most of these articles, whether positive or negative in sentiment, have a section for comments. Each article will likely remain on the Internet, and the legacy of that content will be found by people and search engines, and will continue to work on producing the ‘reputation’ of the industry.

A proactive pharmaceutical company would seize this opportunity to comment, point people to the credible information (whether a company statement) or a later and more complete piece.

Friday 2nd August 2013

• Now nearly two weeks on, a blog post by Richard Bergström is willing to “admit that my industry can be a conservative one, where change can be difficult to implement.” This has the tone of voice and willingness to engage which feels refreshing. So far after the fact, the page is only ‘tweeted’ once, with just 12 clicks, and nothing like the 273 comments which were found on the Guardian story; indeed, at the time of writing – there are none at all.15

Of course other bits and pieces have been said about the issue of clinical trials transparency, and the sequence of events; however for me in providing a debrief on this issue and the way it was handled, there is a closing question which gives relevance to this column;

“Can the pharmaceutical industry really ‘get social’ to improve its perceived reputation in the heat of the moment?”





















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.

Can pharma really ‘get social’ to improve its perceived reputation in the heat of the moment?