Big Pharma Navigates the Rough Seas of Social Media

by pharmacy on July 26, 2011

For pharmaceutical companies and distributors eager to jump on the social media marketing bandwagon, the seas can be stormy indeed. It’s easy to break the rules of the global marketplace and wind up in trouble – with the authorities of a country you do business in, or by unintentionally misleading customers.

When a Red Cross representative accidentally sent this personal tweet from his Red Cross account, much hilarity ensued in Twitville:


The Red Cross response shows a sophisticated understanding of the online market and what people perceive as sketchy behavior. Other companies have denied, argued, refused to acknowledge, claimed to be hacked, or completely over-reacted. By removing the offending tweet and chuckling over the incident, it was over before it became a full-blown publicity nightmare:

There are a number of problems with using social media to discuss drugs, treatments, and pharma news on an international forum. First, the laws governing what drug advertising vary, and that’s what recently got Bayer in trouble. U.K. officials nailed them for two seemingly innocent tweets. It’s against the law in the U.K. to advertise or promote prescription drugs, so when a Bayer media representative mentioned an erectile dysfunction drug that will be administered via melt-away formula, they crossed the line without even including the name of the drug (Levitra). The other tweet in question was about Sativex, a drug prescribed for multiple sclerosis. Bayer had to issue a formal apology to be published by published by the Prescription Medicines Code of Practice Authority.

Even in the U.S., the Levitra tweet is a potential problem. Since the tweet did not mention the drug by name but by its purpose (erectile dysfunction treatment), it could be construed as an endorsement of efficacy. By law, any such statement requires full disclosure of risks and safety information, something a 140-character tweet can’t possibly convey.

Other considerations include drugs marketed under different brand names in different markets, drugs marketed in Europe that remain unapproved in the U.S., and the disparity of drug prices across borders.  

Social sites have proven to be an extremely effective marketing media, giving big business a face and a personality, allowing companies to interact with the public and spread information and news in an organic way. Many companies have hired inexperienced representatives and paid an unacceptable price in bad customer relations that spread like wildfire. But most companies do not have to face the types of pitfalls that exist in the medical and pharmaceutical industries, where accidentally giving incorrect information can lead to legal issues or consumer health crises.

Pharma and tech representatives have weighed in on the issue by providing suggestions for FDA guidelines. After due consideration, the FDA will issue comprehensive rules regarding social media and what can—and can’t—be posted, tweeted, facebooked, or suggested. Have you thought about what kind of person should control your social media image and what legalities they may be faced with? What kind of person should represent your business?

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