Pharma gets social: traditional and social media fuel online row over Merck’s Gardasil

Daniel Ghinn explores the controversy surrounding the Gardasil HPV vaccine following its recent coverage on a US talk show, in his latest ‘pharma gets social’ article.

In today’s digital age, a brand’s reputation is affected not only by stories in mainstream press but by the actions of any number of individuals in social media. For pharmaceutical company Merck, when a story about its Gardasil HPV vaccine was aired on a recent US television show, the story fuelled controversy that rapidly spread worldwide.

Intense social media activity

This was not the first time that Gardasil has been at the centre of intense social media activity. Over recent years, numerous stories have spread as blog posts, videos and updates have been shared among consumers claiming risks associated with Merck’s HPV vaccine. Facebook hosts several pages that have been set up to warn consumers about the product.

Also actively circulating online are numerous counter-stories refuting the alleged dangers. Indeed, in the eyes of consumers and patients it may appear that there is much confusion over the product.

TV show sparks online response

When US talk show host Katie Couric recently interviewed a mother who blamed Merck’s Gardasil HPV vaccine for the death of her daughter, the response in social media was immediate. The show, which is syndicated by Disney / ABC Television Group, spawned a wave of comments and stories about Gardasil that rapidly spread worldwide.

“This was not the first time that Gardasil has been at the centre of intense social media activity.”

Online reactions to the TV show reflected the confusion about Gardasil. Numerous tweets, videos and blog posts were published worldwide, repeating the show’s claims. “Side effects, deaths and it does not prevent cancer“, read a tweet written in Spanish by Colombian online radio host @jebuke, linking to a blog post entitled “Katie Couric Presents The Truth About Gardasil” and a video clip from the show.

Figure 1: Stories about Gardasil spread worldwide after Katie Couric’s TV show.
Source: Twitter

Arguably however, the story turned out to be at least as much of a PR disaster for the Katie Couric show as it was for Merck. Several mainstream media titles criticised the show, including Forbes which reported that Couric had “stacked the deck against the HPV vaccine” by downplaying its effectiveness.

In the Forbes story, Matthew Herper reports that “Despite the attempt at balance, I think most viewers will be left with the impression that the vaccine is dangerous and that its benefits don’t outweigh its risks – a conclusion that is not shared by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Family Physicians, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, or the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.”

“Arguably however, the story turned out to be at least as much of a PR disaster for the Katie Couric show as it was for Merck”

Many who read Herper’s article were outraged about the show, and expressed their fury to Couric directly via Twitter. “Horrible irresponsibility from a bad “news” person“, read one of many tweets sent in response to the Forbes story.

Figure 2: One consumer’s reaction to Forbes’ report on Katie Couric’s TV show about Gardasil.
Source: Twitter

Healthcare professionals join online discussion

Healthcare professionals joined in the discussion too, apparently with one voice. Whereas consumer views in social media covered a wide range of opinions, doctors largely agreed that the show’s coverage of Gardasil was damaging to public health and they too responded strongly.

@CatchTheBaby, an obstetrician and gynaecologist based in California, was one of a number of healthcare professionals who addressed Couric directly by tweet: “@katiecouric How could you?!

Figure 3: One of many angry tweets sent to Katie Couric by healthcare professionals.
Source: Twitter

Damn media. Ms. Couric, care to discuss with a GYNECOLOGIST?…” tweeted @jscalici, a gynaecologic oncologist.

Figure 4: A gynaecologic oncologist questions Katie Couric’s conclusion about Gardasil
Source: Twitter

Social media: an opportunity for vaccine brands

With regulatory constraints regarding the marketing of vaccines being less stringent than they are on other prescription drugs, social media presents a compelling opportunity for engagement around vaccine brands and public health.

Merck was an early adopter of social media among pharmaceutical companies, at one time actively engaging consumers on the topic of cervical cancer. In 2009 I wrote about Take a Step Against Cervical Cancer, Merck’s Gardasil-branded Facebook page which had more than 100,000 fans and was at the time one of the most successful examples of pharmaceutical initiatives on Facebook.

By 2011, that page had been taken down, and the company has since adopted a far more cautious approach to online engagement. Today’s Gardasil web page is by contrast a painfully static experience.

“Today’s Gardasil web page is by contrast a painfully static experience.”

Other social media resources published by Merck around cervical cancer include a YouTube playlist featuring videos of personal stories in English and Spanish languages. But engagement is nowhere to be seen, and sadly the playlist feels like a kind of social media ‘ghost town’. Comments are disabled, and some of the videos have been viewed less than 40 times since being published six months ago.

Lessons from Merck’s experience

What lessons can be learned from Merck’s Gardasil experience? For any brand that attracts controversy, social media will provide an early indicator of messages spreading, and it is likely that individual influential advocates and detractors will develop.

In the case of Gardasil, there are clear groups of individuals with particular views, and some significant online influencers including healthcare professionals. One of Merck’s opportunities is to listen to the online influencers, and identify and support the vaccine’s online advocates.

But perhaps the greatest lesson for Merck and other pharmaceutical companies is that the concerns of stakeholders expressed openly in social media reflect their real needs for information. If the company does not respond to their needs online, they will find, develop and spread answers from wherever they can find them.

The next article by Daniel Ghinn ‘Pharma gets social: GE Healthcare partners to engage cancer community in live tweetchat’ can be viewed here.


About the author:

Daniel Ghinn is CEO of research and strategy consultancy Creation Healthcare. He is passionate about improving healthcare through engagement, and tweets at @engagementstrat.

Closing thought: Was Katie Couric’s representation of Merck’s Gardasil irresponsible?