Pharma gets social: GlaxoSmithKline embraces facebook engagement

Daniel Ghinn

Creation Healthcare

Amongst professionals in pharmaceutical companies there are mixed feelings about social media, and opinions differ as to whether it is a challenge to be avoided or an opportunity to be embraced. Many now recognise that in reality it is both an opportunity and a challenge, and that the most effective approach is one of well-governed engagement.

Over the past few weeks, there will have been few communications or digital professionals in pharmaceutical companies who were not acutely aware of Facebook’s recent change in policy, which ‘unlocked’ the walls of all pages to enable public comments to be posted on them. Until then, most pharmaceutical companies had not ventured further than to publish ‘locked down’ Facebook walls, enabling only one-way dialogue posted by the company but not allowing Facebook users to respond.

“A brief analysis of activity around GSK’s page may therefore be helpful to other pharmaceutical companies in evaluating the future of their own Facebook pages.”

And not without good reason, comments posted on a Facebook wall are immediately public, so there is no opportunity for a page owner to pre-moderate comments before they are published.

GlaxoSmithKline launched its corporate Facebook page in January 2011, and whilst it was not the first major pharmaceutical company on Facebook, its decision to open up the wall for public comments right from the start certainly places it amongst the industry’s early adopters from my point of view. And since Facebook’s policy change, GSK’s page is one of very few pharmaceutical company pages whose owners have not chosen to close them down.

A brief analysis of activity around GSK’s page may therefore be helpful to other pharmaceutical companies in evaluating the future of their own Facebook pages.

Producing both consumer products and prescription-only pharmaceutical products, GlaxoSmithKline has the advantage of being able to post content about some of its products on its wall. It was one such post that attracted the first set of Facebook comments in March this year, which ranged from a question about the company’s drug discovery activity to a question about side-effects. The latter of these was replied to by GSK with details of how to contact the company’s consumer and medical affairs team.

Since the Facebook page’s launch, GlaxoSmithKline has faced comments that may be loosely categorized as one of either positive support for GSK or its consumer brands, or questions about research, products or the post content. Of the questions, these may be categorized either as genuine searches for answers, or provocative attempts to challenge the company.

“…a Facebook page is really now a public forum, much less able to be controlled by a pharmaceutical company than it was before…”

GSK have applied consistency and have avoided being drawn into arguments in comments, choosing rather to ignore questions that appear to be ‘red herrings’. Detractors are in fact relatively few and the most challenging of the comments are restricted to a small handful. Where the company has decided to remove comments altogether, it has posted a reply to explain why. Most of the five comments that GSK have posted to this effect start with the same name: “David – we’ve removed your comment due to…” implying that one individual in particular accounts for the majority of comments that GSK removes. Reasons given by GSK include the posting of inappropriate and defamatory content, and the sharing of information about adverse drug reactions.

A separate tab labelled ‘How we operate on Facebook’ provides a detailed explanation of the company’s policies on Facebook and reasons why comments may be deleted.

Based on an informal review of how GSK has actually handled comments, my impression is that their systematic approach may be something like this:

• Content posted by the company covers corporate communications matters and updates promoting the company’s other digital content and social media channels.

• If a comment is made by a Facebook user that requires deletion based on the ‘How we operate…’ guidelines, the comment is deleted and an explanatory response added by GSK.

• If a comment asks a question to which the answer is already posted elsewhere online, GSK replies with a link to the relevant resource.

• If a comment asks a question which cannot reasonably be answered in a public forum, GSK replies with a suggestion to contact either an alternative GSK address or a healthcare provider (such as “We are not allowed to discuss product information or offer advice to individuals about medicines. Please speak to your healthcare provider if you have any concerns about your medication”, or “We would encourage you to report any adverse events and problems concerning GSK products via this web page”)

• On rare occasions, GSK responds positively to engagement (such as “Hi… – thanks for your support.”)

One interesting point about Facebook’s change in policy is that it could be argued that a Facebook page is really now a public forum, much less able to be controlled by a pharmaceutical company than it was before when a page owner could choose whether or not to allow comments. Yet in this public forum, GSK appears to be embracing the transition of corporate communications to suit the changing engagement environment.

GlaxoSmithKline’s corporate Facebook page is not a particularly exciting, dynamic presence – the company rightly saves that for its consumer brands, which have a far greater following on Facebook – but I would suggest that it does bring GlaxoSmithKline closer to certain stakeholders in a relevant and engaging way, and it certainly provides a platform for testing a two-way engagement model that will surely be at the heart of pharmaceutical corporate communications well into the future.

About the author:

Daniel Ghinn is CEO of Creation Healthcare, an independent global consultancy helping pharmaceutical companies to make informed decisions about digital engagement in a regulated environment. He can be reached by email at at or by Twitter @EngagementStrat

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