The social media side effect

This is an edited version of a blog I contribute to elsewhere on the web.

People working in the world of pharma would be justified in beginning to think that their profession has never been sexier. Hollywood is turning what has historically been perceived as a dry profession into an arena in which love stories and thrillers are made.

If you’ve ever watched Love and Other Drugs – a rom-com where Anne Hathaway falls for a drug rep – you’d be forgiven for thinking that those of us who work in and around pharma were now being viewed in a positive light.

But Hollywood is hardly famed for its naturalistic representation of anything (let alone something as complicated as our industry) and so anyone hoping for the attentions of an Anne Hathaway look-a-like (or their male equivalent) on the basis of their job should probably just keep waiting.

A darker side of the industry is hinted at in the upcoming Jude Law movie Side Effects (trailer embedded below) in which Steven Soderbergh explores the ramifications of the industry’s approach to selling anti-depressants in a way that may be thrilling on screen but which is unlikely to do much to prevent criticisms of pharma’s role in society.

And it’s this bigger question of pharma’s role in society that yet another new film about the industry addresses.

In the strictly non-fictional documentary ‘Fire in the Blood’, director Dylan Mohan Gray explores the negativities of drug patents and the access restrictions this can mean in the developing world.

As very coherently put by PJ Online (the journal of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society) in their review last week, this is the third part of what could be considered a recent trilogy of bad publicity for the industry:

So what do all of these things mean for us actually working in pharma?

Well, it means we have a whole new audience taking an interest in our world – a whole new group of people interested in what we do, why we do it and at what cost.

What this means in a connected world is the opening of a Pandora’s box of online activity, one that for those companies who have already put themselves out there in the social ecosystem is likely to prove testing for their social infrastructure and guidelines.

A great PM Live article poses an appropriate metaphor in urging these companies to ‘strengthen their social immune systems’ by looking to use their online communities as ambassadors in times of crisis.

But can most companies realistically look to rely on this mechanism? Again – if you currently manage any pharma social activities ask yourself “Do I really have an online community who are likely to make credible ambassadors?”

If you manage externally-facing social activities in the industry right now, and the answer to the above question is “no” then you should probably conduct a quick review of your processes and run some scenarios on how a new influx of informed (and inevitably negative) opinion might play out for you.

In this new world where anyone is fair game in terms of wider social conversations, it’s essential to understand where conversations are happening, why they are happening (both from a conversation driver perspective and from a deeper understanding of social trends) and what our role and responsibility as the pharma industry is in participating in these.

As the release of both these factual and fictional takes on pharma’s ethics highlights, never before has listening been quite so crucial to keep abreast of online conversations and to understand their implications for your business.

Whilst Hollywood does not generally drive direct consumer engagement with pharma’s social profiles, what it’s already doing is making the whole pharma conversation just that little bit more mainstream.

After all, humans are, by nature, curious individuals, so the chance of watching Love and Other Drugs, for example, and then heading off to Google Pfizer are pretty high.

So will a suited and booted Jude Law prompt your average Jo to turn to their social channels for a little more information on psychiatric drugs and their side effects? Yes, it’s more than likely. And this goes double for the issues raised in Fire in the Blood.

This isn’t to say that companies should go out there with a strongly worded opinion in response to this documentary, but it does highlight more strongly than ever the need to be prepared.

Being prepared means having the ability to listen to conversations and to then take leadership where leadership is required. It means real-time listening – and listening in the context of wider issues – and knowing how and when to respond.

The ability to understand and act upon inputs such as response rates, tone of voice, and the implementation of effective governance decision trees and their associated responsibilities, will weed out the socially strong from the socially naive.

And let’s not forget that social media can, and will, drive traditional media coverage. Effective online crisis management can, and will, prevent this from happening.

But only if you know these issues exist.

We as an industry must be ready for social trends to mirror popular culture and satisfy our inquisitive natures, and have our listening and response protocols up-and-running, and be ready for engagement.

As pharma becomes part of everyday conversations, let’s see who leads the way, and who is left scrambling to pull together an SOP.

Who knew Jude Law could teach us so much?

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