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Pharma Social Media Best Practices: Reaching Out Within Regulatory Restrictions

Not so long ago, pharmaceutical companies would shy away from social media. As a regulated industry, it wasn’t surprising that pharma might want to avoid the regulatory and reputation risks that come along with the open, generally unmoderated, exchanges on social media.

But these days that’s changed. Pharma can be seen Facebooking and Tweeting along with the rest of the healthcare industry. What happened? Do the benefits of social media now outweigh the risks for pharma? Has pharma found a way to engage in the uncontrolled environment of social media and stay out of trouble with regulators?

Let’s take a look.


Social Media: What’s Changed for Pharma?

Social media has become part of everyday life for the vast majority of people. This includes pharma’s customers: patients, their caregivers, and healthcare providers. By making it easy to find and access health information, social media has given patients and their caregivers additional avenues for managing their health concerns. Healthcare providers also find value in social media through collaboration with peers and patient groups.

Pew Research Center reports that among internet users:

  • 80% have searched online for health information, including info on diseases and treatments
  • 24% have consulted online reviews of particular drugs and treatments
  • 25% have watched an online video about health or a medical issue

Patients, their caregivers, and healthcare providers all look to social media for information and support. PWC Health Research Institute reports that among survey respondents:

  • 34% say that info they found on social media would affect their taking certain medications
  • 40% say that info found on social media would affect how they coped with a chronic illness or their approach to diet and exercise

Patients, caregivers, and healthcare providers all turn to social media for health information that helps them understand and address their health concerns. – Source


Despite regulatory concerns and risks to company reputation, pharma has come to realize that social media provides a way to reach more people, raise brand awareness, and discover what people really want from them. In fact, because of how other industries engage with their customers via social media, pharma now recognizes that people expect to reach every company and their customer service department (pharma included) via Twitter.

With this evolution in social media’s role, pharma has found that staying on the sidelines presents its own set of risks.


Pharma’s Social Media Landscape

While pharma’s overall engagement is growing on social media, when looking at individual pharmaceutical companies, you will see differing approaches and levels of engagement. This makes it hard to characterize pharma’s social media activity in a single, ubiquitous manner.

As pharma’s social media participation has become established, pharma continues to see its following grow. – Source


In its 2018 Social Check-up on pharma, Ogilvy CommonHealth reports that while pharma companies are posting less frequently to social media, their audiences on various platforms are still growing.

Unmetric undertook the project of tracking and analyzing pharma’s activity on social media. For the five years leading up through 2016, Unmetric tracked and analyzed the social media activity of these 16 pharma brands: Abbott, Abbvie, Allergan, AstraZeneca, Bayer, Boehringer Ingelheim, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Eli Lilly & Company, GSK, Johnson & Johnson, Merck, Novartis, Novo Nordisk, Pfizer, Roche, and Sanofi.

Unmetric found a couple of characteristics unique to pharma:

Pharma is picky about which social media platforms it uses.

Pharmaceutical companies don’t automatically establish a presence on every major social media platform available. – Source


Pharma’s activity was tracked on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, YouTube, Pinterest, and Instagram.

When it comes to social media, pharmaceutical companies don’t automatically establish a presence on every major social media platform. On average, pharma is active on five out of the six major social media platforms tracked.

Being present on Twitter and LinkedIn was most common. Facebook and YouTube were next most common. Pinterest and Instagram were least common with less than half of pharmaceutical companies establishing a presence there.

Pharma is selective about the type of information it shares on social media.

Pharma limits and silos the information it shares on social media. – Source


Unmetric identified four categories of topics commonly discussed by pharma on social media:

  • Corporate social profiles
  • Careers in pharma
  • OTC brand profiles
  • Branded community properties

Each of these topics tend to be contained in their individual silo. For example, nearly every company shares corporate profile information on social media. But, recruiting and human resources (i.e., careers in pharma) are generally handled by a separate social media account and/or on a separate social media platform, most likely LinkedIn.

None of the pharmaceutical companies profiled by Unmetric publish information in all four silos, reflecting how pharma picks and chooses among topics discussed in social media.

Unmetric attributes this siloing of topics and the limited company participation to pharma’s regulatory environment.


Pharma’s Regulatory Environment

Pharmaceutical companies operate in a complex regulatory environment. These companies are monitored by, and answer to, multiple federal agencies for a variety issues.

The Federal Drug Administration (FDA) regulates the availability and safety of drugs (both prescription and OTC) and medical devices, making every pharmaceutical company subject to its regulation and oversight.

In social media. the FDA is particularly concerned about adverse events and off-label use. Pharmaceutical companies are required to report any adverse events that come to their attention to the FDA. As for off-label use, pharma is prohibited from endorsing or encouraging any suggestion or advice given to use a drug in a manner other than what it was formally approved for by the FDA.

Pharma is also concerned about regulations related to HIPAA, or the Health Insurance Portability and Affordability Act. Administered by the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Office of Civil Rights (OCR), HIPAA enforces the privacy rights of individuals when it comes to their protected health information. The primary aim of HIPAA is to keep personally identifiable health information secure.

Pharma companies themselves are not listed among the groups HIPAA applies to (i.e., health plans, healthcare clearinghouses, and healthcare providers that conduct healthcare transactions electronically). Yet out of an abundance of caution, pharma operates on social media within HIPAA constraints.


Pharma bears some responsibility to make sure any influencers they engage makes the required FTC-mandated disclosures. – Source


Pharma is also subject to the same FTC guidelines for influencers and marketers as with any other industry. Ads and endorsements must be clearly identified. Relationships with influencers that include any exchange of value, monetary or otherwise, must be disclosed. Pharma bears the responsibility to make sure these requirements are met in all their social media campaigns.


Social Media Best Practices Within a Regulatory Environment

As a heavily regulated industry, pharma faces a couple of particular challenges when engaging in social media. Beyond the risks to their company’s reputation inherent in unmoderated social media, pharma must also manage the risk of regulatory violations. Both risks can be costly and disruptive to the company.

But, there are a few things pharmaceutical companies can do to address these risks.

Involve the company’s regulatory department in managing social media.

Do this up front, and not when a social media or regulatory crisis erupts.

The specialized knowledge the regulatory department brings to social media management is invaluable.

The regulatory department can untangle what is actually required from what is perceived as required. By providing operational guidelines and staff training, the regulatory department enables those producing social media content or managing the company’s social media accounts to do their job with confidence. When the inevitable social media crisis does erupt, the regulatory department can provide informed guidance on how to best respond to regulators.

By partnering with regulatory, many of the risks associated with social media can be mitigated – if not completely eliminated.


Strategize your approach to various topic types.

Do this up front, and again, not in the middle of a social media crisis.

Klick Health identifies 14 key topic types, what it calls “important buckets,” that pharma companies should be prepared to address in social media.

They are:

  • Positive health story
  • Negative health story
  • Financial information
  • Requests for more information
  • Adverse Events and product complaints
  • Response to suicide and suicidal posts
  • Positive page comments
  • Negative page comments
  • Treatment questions and comments
  • Alternative treatments
  • Mention of any branded product
  • Derogatory language
  • Offensive language
  • Threats

Being prepared to respond to potentially difficult topics on social media can help manage the risks. – Source


Strategizing how to respond in advance enables those managing the company’s social media accounts to respond more quickly and with greater assurance of minimizing the risks of missteps that will further damage the company’s reputation or regulatory standing.

Really listen to what social media is saying to pharma.

Social listening is a valuable tool. It allows companies to tap into the insights and desires of their customers. For pharma this means investigating the mindset of patients, their caregivers, and healthcare professionals.

Beyond finding fans and monitoring their reputations, pharmaceutical companies can also uncover potential social media risks early on and avoid being blindsided by a crisis.


Social Media Engagement in a Regulated Environment Can Be Managed

As pharma continues to engage in social media, it will reap the benefits that come from having a direct connection with its customers. Social media allows pharma to tap into its customers’ insights and desires, potentially influencing pharma’s future business direction.

Being in a regulated industry, however, does add more complexity to managing social media engagement for pharma. But this complexity can be properly managed, and the risks minimized with upfront planning and strategizing that is informed by regulatory knowledge.

How are you navigating the regulatory system with your current social media strategy?


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