Social media guidelines: mapping the lines of the playing field

Paul Tunnah interviews Sabine Kostevc


Social media is by its very definition a way of connecting online with other people and exchanging your views with the broader world. Over the last 5 years the digital landscape in this space has changed immeasurably, with sites such as Facebook now seeing well over 500 million users, around half of whom log on every day.1 Through this internet phenomenon and other channels such as Twitter and Linkedin, people are connecting globally in both a work and leisure capacity.

In the true “social” sense, that’s a very compelling proposition, but sometimes a dangerous one. How many people reading this have, at some point, made a comment online that they have later regretted? In a personal sense social media can sometimes present the wrong impression or be misrepresentative. For individuals, this can be an occasional embarrassment, but as the line blurs between our work and non-work personas it becomes a major problem for companies with corporate responsibility and clear brand messages.

Operating within one of the most heavily regulated sectors, the reluctance of pharma companies and their employees to engage online is therefore understandable. In the past, those employees exposed to traditional print and audio / video media would be given the appropriate media training to ensure they didn’t slip up, but with the internet it’s virtually impossible to do that for everyone. In addition, with the lines being so blurred between use of social media sites from a personal and work perspective, it raises ethical concerns around to what extent companies can dictate how their employees use them.


“…it was a brave move in August last year for Roche to be the first major pharma company to issue some official guidelines on social media use to its employees…”

So it was a brave move in August last year for Roche to be the first major pharma company to issue some official guidelines on social media use to its employees, encompassing several guiding principles around how they should represent the company whether officially wearing the “company hat” or not.2 pharmaphorum managed to catch up with Sabine Kostevc, Head of Internet and Social Media, who led the initiative to develop and rollout these guidelines to hear her perspective. First of all, Sabine clarified that the whole process started way before mid-2010, confirming that “we had social media guidelines for internal use since 2008, but given the growing interest in social media we felt that we needed to update them and make them more easily available.”

And the process itself involved multiple internal stakeholders, with Sabine going on to clarify “we made sure to have legal and regulatory on board from the beginning, together with each one representative from the business divisions, R&amp,D, HR, IT and Communications. All of the team members are social media savvy experts in their field and were able to get access and backing from top management in their area. In addition, we had members of the Executive Committee as project sponsors: our Global Head of HR, Head of Communications and the General Counsel – so we were sure to have top management buy-in and could address any issues from the beginning.” Building on the existing internal guidelines that were in use by Roche the whole process of review and approval took around 4 months.

Speaking with Sabine, there is a modesty downplaying the whole process that is in stark contrast to the excitement the guidelines generated when they were released. At the Digipharm conference at the end of 2010, it seemed like everyone wanted to know more about how the process worked and it was clear that several other big pharma companies were developing their own guidelines using the Roche ones as a template. However, from the Roche perspective the focus was clearly on getting the communication right internally. “We had news on the Intranet, newsletters to various audiences as well as stories in our printed employee magazine. There is an ongoing awareness campaign with print and online stories, live training sessions and so on”, Sabine tells pharmaphorum, before adding “approving a guideline is only the beginning!”

It is clear that the rollout of the guidelines had been planned in meticulous detail, with Sabine expanding on specific initiatives included in raising awareness such as “’speeches at conventions, showcasing examples on a dedicated social media intranet with learning resources and fostering best practice exchange in the organisation through a network of social media ambassadors.” Indeed, the principles of effective internal communication here are the same as those of successful social media sites, with Sabine going on to say “it is important to continue the flow of interesting social media stories to reach the broadest audience, and tie them to the guidelines and comprehensive training offers.”


“Many had been unsure about the official Roche position and whether engaging on social platforms was okay at all.”

Even with such a well-planned communication rollout, there must have been concerns that employees would take the guidelines in the wrong way, perhaps see them as an affront to their personal rights? But speaking with Sabine, there’s no hint of that being the reality and she describes the reaction from employees as “overwhelmingly positive”, before affirming that they “very much appreciated the clarity and positive attitude towards the use of social media. Many had been unsure about the official Roche position and whether engaging on social platforms was okay at all. Now they know that it is okay, and what rules apply for their activities.”

Evaluating the impact of the guidelines though is much harder. The pace at which the social web is evolving, particularly from a corporate perspective, has resulted in many pharma companies feeling compelled to start new initiatives. As Sabine rightly points out “it’s hard to tell how much of the growing interest and activities in social media stems from the general publicity or from us publishing the guidelines.”

Although most of the digital activity within pharma currently relates to individual brands and therapy areas, this is not the key area where the Roche guidelines appear to have made an impact internally, with Sabine clarifying that the local regulations are a much tighter set of rules in this space. However, from a broader perspective she has seen an impact, where the guidelines have “certainly fostered initiatives in the HR environment or thoughts on integrated communication activities outside of brands.”

And whilst everyone last year was obsessed with the precise language used for each of the seven social media guidelines presented by Roche for social media use either as an official or unofficial company representative, it is clear the real challenge was in implementation – ensuring the 80,000+ employees knew of the guidelines and what they meant. However, Sabine feels it was a challenge worth taking on, recognising the “great feedback we got for publishing the guidelines” and the benefits of “being perceived as a proactive and transparent company, a leader in this field.”


“But with the pace of growth we are seeing in social media, we have to plan to regularly revisit and adapt to any changes that occur.”

The killer question, of course, is whether Roche would do this again the same way. Overall, the answer is a resounding yes, but with a hint of a need for senior management to recognise the growing importance of this space. “People involved in social media need to get the official remit and time / resources as part of their job description, at least for a certain time until social media becomes fully integrated in communications activities”, Sabine points out.

It would be easy to take away from this discussion that development of the social media guidelines at Roche was a straightforward process, which was well communicated and well received. For the most part that would appear to be the case, but I am sure there were hurdles along the way and some mistakes made, despite the careful planning put in place by Sabine and the Social Media Advisory Board. But with the pace of growth we are seeing in social media, we have to plan to regularly revisit and adapt to any changes that occur. To plan to such an extent as to avoid every pitfall would delay such projects as to render them obsolete by the time they are implemented. The key thing, like many initiatives in the digital space, is to be courageous enough to try something, even if you are not sure.

And for that alone, Sabine and her internal advocates at Roche should be applauded for being the first big pharma to develop such social media guidelines. We’re sure they will just be the first of many companies to do so, hopefully giving pharma employees all over the world the green light to engage more in a professional capacity online.


1. Facebook statistics,

2. Roche social media guidelines (PDF download),

About the author:

Sabine Kostevc is Head of Corporate Internet and Social Media at Roche, Switzerland. She leads the Roche Social Media Advisory Board and manages the corporate web presence of Roche. She developed guidance on the use of social media at Roche, building a network of experts and establishing global training programs and governance.

Originally coming from Marketing &amp, Sales at chemical company BASF, in the mid-90s Sabine moved to Russia as Head of Marketing and Communications for Mercedes-Benz. Her first projects involving new web technologies date back to 1995, when she also became founding manager of one of the first digital advertising networks in Russia. Since then Sabine worked as Editor in Chief for the German-Russian business association’s monthly journal prior to moving to Roche in 2001, where she has since held various web-related positions in Germany and Switzerland.

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