The rocky road for pharma and social media

bayeruktwitterA report in the Financial Times (and other mainstream media) last week highlights the real risks for companies in regulated industries when they get it wrong in how they make use of social media as communication channels, in this case, Twitter.

The FT reports that German pharma company Bayer was sharply reprimanded by the UK pharmaceutical industry regulator for how its UK business used Twitter earlier this year to promote two high-profile prescription medicines to the public.

The FT says it’s a pioneering case highlighting “the dangers of social media for marketing.”

The Prescription Medicines Code of Practice Authority, the self-regulatory arm of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, said the German-based company had brought “discredit” on the industry by tweeting the launch of an erectile dysfunction medicine and a cannabis-derived painkiller.

[…] Within Europe, drug companies are not allowed by law to advertise prescription medicines to the public, while additional UK industry ethical codes require that any product information provided to the public must be factual and balanced.

[…] Specialist guidance issued by the British pharmaceutical industry in April on digital communications said companies that wanted to use Twitter to promote such medicines would have to ensure that the audience was restricted to health professionals and that any information complied with its existing code of practice.

From looking at the ABPI’s guidance document, it’s hard to see how Bayer could have come to a conclusion that Twitter would be an appropriate channel to mention (let’s not use the word ‘announce’) the availability of the medicines concerned.

The relevant text on page 6 of the document says this:

If a company wanted to promote a medicine via Twitter it would have to ensure that if the medicine was prescription only, the audience was restricted to health professionals and that the message, in addition to any further information, complied with the Code. In addition companies would also have to ensure that recipients had agreed to receive the information. Given these restrictions and the character limit on Twitter, it is highly unlikely that the use of this medium to promote prescription-only medicine would meet the requirements of the Code.

Using Twitter to alert health professionals about the publication of a study on medicine is likely to be considered promotion of that medicine.

The tweets were subsequently deleted by Bayer although the Digital Pharma blog has a screenshot of one of them in its report on the issue in April.

No financial or other penalty for Bayer but an embarrassment and potentially a handbrake for an industry that is often seen as risk-averse as far as pushing regulatory envelopes for communication is concerned.

I’m not sure I agree with the FT’s rather dramatic description about the dangers of social media for marketing. Risks, to be sure, if you make a mistake like this. Or maybe that’s just hair-splitting.

In any case, I believe it is just a mistake by Bayer, albeit one that carries greater consequences than if Bayer were doing business in an open industry rather than a tightly-regulated one with many restrictions on how, what, when and where a company communicates.

The takeaway: the devil is in the details.

Earlier this month, the Washington Post reported on the reactions by some pharma companies to moves by Facebook to enable people to openly comment on a page Wall.

[…] Companies are worried that open Walls mean risks, and many are reconsidering their engagement on Facebook. On [August 12], AstraZeneca, which sells the antidepressant Seroquel, shut down a page devoted to depression. Johnson & Johnson said it will close four of its pages [on August 15]. Other companies said they will monitor their pages more closely once the changes take effect.

The industry is concerned that users might write about bad side effects, promote off-label use or make inappropriate statements about a product, and that the comments could raise concerns from government regulators.

Prudent risk assessment and balancing in the consideration of a significant issue – adverse event reporting? Or, in the US, just easier to say “No we can’t!” rather than “Yes we can!” in an industry that still has no formal guidance for using social media?

Neville Hobson

Social Strategist, Communicator, Writer, and Podcaster with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Believer in an Internet for everyone. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.

  1. Neil Crump

    Hi there

    Nice post and in relation to Bayer and the tweets even BEFORE the UK PMCPA guidance was published this was a daft thing to do – the line between info and promotion have always been crystal clear.

    I won’t bang on about my thoughts on the Code in th UK but I did write about it on my blog if you are interested:

    I believe as with everything in pharma communication it is about context, and the devil is certainly in the detail.

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