Social pharma faces: James Musick

Rebecca Aris interviews James Musick


Our social pharma face series brings you many people at the forefront of innovation in digital pharma and this month’s expert is no exception.

Having worked in the social media industry for over twenty years, pharmaphorum were pleased to interview James Musick, who is currently Director of Social Media &amp, Web Communications at leading research corporation, Genentech. We thought it was about time we grilled James on his expertise, especially as he was one of the forerunners in implementing internal campaigns to increase the company’s social media awareness and directing the creation of Genentech’s YouTube videos.

Read on to find out James’ thoughts on how to incorporate social media into the pharma industry and his advice for small biotech companies looking to make the move into the digital world.

Interview summary

RA: Hi James, thanks for speaking to me today. Having not always worked in the biotech industry, how did you come into your current role, heading up social media at Genentech?

JM: When the web and computers were just starting to become prevalent in academia, I was attending a graduate school for neuroscience and my instructors asked me to determine how we could use these emerging technologies to in our lab. I was also quite lucky because I was attending University of Washington, which was close to Microsoft and had a really phenomenal computer science programme. I was fortunate enough to be able to take computer science classes and learn how software and computers worked. By the time I finished graduate school, I was quite interested in the field, and then I went to Silicon Valley and spent a few years working on enterprise collaboration software. Collaboration software was the precursor to social media and that’s how I got onto this path.

RA: Do you see any process similarities between software engineering and drug development?

JM: One of the main similarities I’ve seen is the rigorous attention to detail. If you’re an engineer you need to pay attention to minute differences in equations, or the way a system is operating, and the same goes for medicine development. There is also the feeling in both biotechnology and software that these are fairly new, yet world-changing, disciplines. Areas where a new approach is fundamentally making things better for mankind.

The difference, in my opinion, is that biology adds a complex wrinkle. Engineering is an exact science, whereas in biology there may be something that behaves in an unexpected or unexplained fashion, and that makes the medicine development particularly difficult. The other difference is the direct connection to patients – while you certainly might be making software that is saving lives, in medicine development you’re always directly working on something that is helping patients with complex medical conditions.

RA: It’s probably fair to say that Genentech has been one of the more active biotech companies when it comes to social media…

JM: Yes, we are using Twitter quite a lot, plus the majority of the big social channels Facebook, Flickr, YouTube, LinkedIn, but we use them all for slightly different, yet related, purposes. We are increasingly focusing on a content ecosystem strategy, developing quality content and then distributing that content in the different channels as appropriate.

In terms of our social media strategy, one of the most important things is that we spent a considerable amount of time observing, analyzing and researching before jumping in to any particular channel. I often use our example of Twitter, where we were aware of its emergence, but spent a good six months actually looking at analysis of what was going on in Twitter before jumping in. This was back in the day when the analysis was very rudimentary and there weren’t as many tools, but it was fascinating to see what was going on, so we could think in a very deliberate way about who we were going to engage with in that particular channel. We still continue to learn from our very active Twitter users and KOLs as well as other people in the biopharma industry.


“There is the feeling in both biotechnology and software, that these are world-changing disciplines, a new approach which is fundamentally altering the course of humankind”


Another important part of our strategy is that we have focused on getting our employees and internal communicators active in social media. For the first year or two, there was a very intellectual understanding of social media within the company, but there wasn’t a very visceral understanding. We found that individuals we were working with in regulatory, legal, and sometimes even in marketing, had heard of Twitter and social media but hadn’t actually used it. During approval processes some of the challenges we were having, around understanding a video play page or related lists on YouTube for example, or even how check-ins worked, were because individuals were only experiencing these in the abstract. We implemented a very healthy internal social media programme along with mobile applications that involved check-ins and photo uploads, for example, and we found that as people have increasingly been able to use social media internally, it’s helped with the understanding of how social media can be valuable externally.

RA: Some of the YouTube videos Genentech has published have come at things from a slightly different angle, and have had some impressive viewing figures. What’s the story behind them?

JM: I’m really very proud of our YouTube videos. One of my team, Sharif Ezzat, is a very talented creative lead and we focused on creating videos that represented the spirit and the culture of our company. When people visit us on campus they often remark that there is a sense that something special is going on – that people are going about their business with a sense of passion &amp, purpose, so we tried to capture some of that. We’re also specifically trying to be very diverse about the types of videos we produce, so while we’ve done interview or documentary style videos, which were well received and have had quite a number of views, we are also looking at some videos coming out in the next few weeks which have a fresh approach to explaining we find the science of biotechnology so amazing and interesting.

RA: How do you think other smaller emerging biotechs could use social media to connect with both healthcare stakeholders and possible investors?

JM: What’s great about social media is because of its size, reach, and complexity, it allows one to find specific niches audiences, so it’s almost a paradox, and you have access to a large system whereby you are able to find small subsets of audiences that you’re not going to be able to find in other ways.


“For the first year or two, there was a very intellectual understanding of social media within the company, but there wasn’t a very visceral understanding.”


For a small emerging biotechnology they need to have a good understanding of their audience, what technical, scientific and patient audiences they are interested in engaging with, who their possible stakeholders are, and to not treat all the social media channels as the same. A common mistake I see is that large companies, not only in biotechnology, but across the globe, assume that Facebook and Twitter are this huge multimillion-user hydra monster, and don’t take the time to discover that there are very intelligent, inquisitive people who are interested in specific areas and complex stories. You don’t need to dumb down what you’re saying, and you don’t need to turn down the level of rigour on your science, or what you’re talking about, because the point of these channels is that you’re going to be able to reach the audience that message actually resonates with or you want to have that conversation with.

RA: Obviously Genentech is a member of the Roche group, so how much input does Roche have in your social media activities?

JM: We collaborate with our global counterparts if not daily, then certainly weekly, and in terms of the input and influence, the Roche-Genentech merger happened at a very fortuitous time from a social media perspective. As all the pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies were starting to use social channels, so were we. All of a sudden we went from having a team focused in the US, to being connected with a global team that was experiencing many of the same issues but in a global context and together we were able to work on developing great social media guidelines.


“If you take time to become close with your counterparts in legal and regulatory from the start, you’re usually able to find a way where you can communicate or engage without breaching those regulations.”


RA: Because of the nature of Genentech’s work, you’re dealing with some pretty complex diseases and targeted therapies. How have you managed to convey these highly technical areas through social media channels?

JM: Well that’s definitely a challenge, and we obviously don’t try to tell the whole complex story in 140 characters. However in these cases, like I mentioned before, it’s important not to dumb down the science. Instead, we use social media for reach, targeting, aggregation and refinement, highlighting some of the amazing work that’s being done in genetics, epigenetic, biotechnologies, pharmaceuticals and bringing to light areas where the entire industry is moving forward.

RA: Many pharma companies are still reluctant to get too heavily involved in social media due to fear of breach in regulations and legal issues around two-way online communications. Given your experience, what key advice would you give them?

JM: The concerns are very reasonable, however, one thing that is sometimes overlooked is that the regulations are there for a good reason. If you take time to become close with your counterparts in legal and regulatory from the start, you’re usually able to find a way where you can communicate or engage without breaching those regulations.

RA: Finally, can you tell us anything about what Genentech has in store for its social media initiatives over the next 12 months?

JM: Certainly – there are a couple of things I’m really enthusiastic about. One I alluded to earlier, as I think this is going to be a great year for Genentech and YouTube. We’re building on the great success we had last year, our team has come up with a new set of eight to 10 videos across a wide range of topics related to scientific innovation done in creative ways which will help people better understand some of the cutting edge science that is happening and how it connects to amazing new medicines for patients.

The other thing I’m excited about is a social engagement experience we did at this year’s TED conference. It was a huge hit, with over 1,100 people turning their genes into music over the course of 4 days. Using a combination of digital and social media, we started a conversation with participants about recent leaps in biotechnology, and left them with a unique and personalized reminder of their experience. Now we’re looking to leverage this work in a broader social context to help science communicators and educators, so it will be interesting to see how it scales for a larger population.


About the interviewee:

James Musick is an interactive digital media strategist, focusing on the convergence of social and mobile technologies. As the Director of Social Media &amp, Web Communications at Genentech, Musick integrates strategic business value with user experience and adoption through the development of mobile, social, and interactive initiatives.

His background includes a doctorate in neurophysiology from the University of Washington. There his creation of neural behavior computer models sparked an interest, and then a career, in software engineering and architecture in the fledgling social/knowledge management/collaboration software space. Musick complemented his enterprise software experience with work in corporate IT strategy and then as a strategy director for a digital agency.

Founded over 35 years ago, Genentech is a leading biotechnology company that markets itself as a research-driven corporation that discovers, develops, manufactures and commercialises medicines to treat patients with serious or life-threatening medical conditions. Genentech has been a member of the Roche Group since 2009.

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