PR to pharma: up your dosage of social media


Many pharma companies remain concerned about running afoul of the regulators with their online activities and therefore have not yet fully embraced new channels. However, increasingly patients want and expect them to engage, and those that have are reaping the rewards.

An IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics report last year asked the provocative question, 'Is healthcare ready for empowered and digitally demanding patients?'

Well, is it?

Consumers today are social beings. Research has found that the average American goes to the doctor three times a year, but spends 52 hours online searching for health information. They want this information fast and are willing to consult a wide array of sources, including friends and family, social media, news outlets, blogs, Wikipedia, pharma company websites, and everything in between.

Younger consumers, the most tech-savvy, are also "among the most health conscious of any age cohort" according to Lisa Stockman, president, global public relations and medical communications, inVentiv Health. That has implications for pharma. As Stockman says, "Consumer fascination in preventative health management tells us pharmaceutical companies must adopt new strategies."

Out with the old, in with the new

Pharma companies have long relied on traditional public relations tactics to communicate with patients, including media outreach, partnerships with third-party patient advocacy groups, and event sponsorships. Although these tactics remain critical, they are no longer enough.

"The days when patients considered the ability to connect with you directly a 'nice-to-have' are gone"


Chris Iafolla, head of inVentiv Health PR Group's digital and social strategy practice, relates that, "The days when patients considered the ability to connect with you directly a 'nice-to-have' are gone; they now expect it. The democratisation of media has made that possible. It is now possible to change the model from a one-way communication to a two-way dialogue and to involve your audience in a discussion."

No room for inaction

So why have so few pharma companies broken through using social media? As a recent Forbes article observes, 'among the 50 largest companies, half still do not use social media to engage consumers or patients,' and only 10 of these 50 have made use of Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook, the top three social media channels.

Clearly companies remain concerned about running afoul of US FDA regulators, and for that reason have not yet fully embraced new channels. When the FDA released long-awaited guidelines about the communication of health information via social media, it seemed to take a fairly restrictive stance, requiring that companies communicate information about risks and benefits in any social media message.

While staying within bounds remains a critical concern, it need not, should not, and in today's environment, cannot prevent pharma companies from engaging deeply in social media. One recent Accenture study found that patients expect digital communication from pharma companies, seeking information around issues related to their treatment. Pharma needs to sustain more meaningful and more intimate conversations with patients and, in the case of younger patients in particular, needs to help satisfy patient yearnings to understand the companies behind the products they consume.

"Pharma companies must put aside their fears and develop a new strategy for engaging with patients"


Pharma companies must put aside their fears and develop a new strategy for engaging with patients. "Inaction is not the answer," notes Tim Bird, CEO of Cooney Waters Unlimited. Social channels should be used to educate and empower patients and advocacy groups.

Laying the groundwork

Companies seeking to wade more deeply into social might begin by analysing how their existing social media presence stacks up against that of their closest competitors. As Helene Ellison, chair, global healthcare practice of Burson-Marsteller notes, "Competitive benchmarking helps make a case for certain social media platforms, but the real value comes when our research delivers insights that help us find social media strategies that can be integrated across marketing and communications."

It's also important to take the time to really understand the audience you're targeting. JeanAnn Morgan, managing director at Burson-Marsteller, recounts how, in devising a programme to target patients with chronic disease, her client first spent time understanding "the triggers that drive better disease management and a therapy's role in impacting a patient's daily life".

The communications team discovered that community played a greater role than was previously thought. Burson-Marsteller's research found that 93 per cent of advocacy community members used the Internet for health information and disease management, while 71 per cent of patients were actively engaged on social media. With online community support, patients with this condition felt empowered to care for themselves more energetically. This and other insights led to an effective patient engagement programme that built community and enhanced awareness around the disease.

Likewise, JPA Health Communications partnered with the Melanoma Research Foundation (MRF) to enhance their digital content and boost online community offerings. Responding to numerous melanoma patients seeking information and peer support, JPA monitored the MRF's website and social media analytics to deliver the 'MRF community central', a key portal for patients, caregivers, family and friends. Overall, the MRF's redesigned website,, made information and support more accessible for melanoma patients. Patients responded enthusiastically, and traffic on saw a significant uptick.

Strategies for success

To excel at social media, create meaningful content that adds value and that can be shared and cited. Drive discussion and dialogue while always complying with government regulations. Provide targeted, channel-specific messaging to various audience segments and use visual communications like video and infographics wherever possible.

One successful ongoing campaign, Parkinson's More Than Motion, is an interactive Facebook community campaign developed by Cooney Waters and its client UCB to reach people with Parkinson's disease and their caregivers. This reality-style video and interactive content-rich series, now in its third year, informs patients about the importance of recognising and treating both the motor and non-motor symptoms of Parkinson's disease. More than 75,000 fans have watched these videos. Educational tools and ongoing content and communications keep them actively engaged and coming back for more.

In some sense, the communications challenges posed by social media are not new. The discipline of public relations has always focused on communicating messages through earned trust rather than paid messages. Likewise, the imperative to sustain honest, authentic conversations with consumers has always existed, irrespective of regulations. New social media technologies simply allow interactions to happen more fluidly and dynamically.

Don't let fear of the unknown prevent you from meeting today's patients where they are. They're out there, waiting for a conversation. Are you up to the challenge?

About the author:

Kathy Cripps (@kathyhcripps) is president of the PR Council (@PRCouncil), a US-based trade association with over 100 member firms and resources such as Find-a-Firm and RFPBuilder. Kathy is formerly president of SCIENS Worldwide and was US healthcare director at Hill & Knowlton, a global multinational firm.

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