Social Media on Drugs

Pharmaceutical companies are heavily regulated in the manner in which they can advertise to consumers. And for good reason – drugs are highly effective in addressing medical conditions, but also potentially dangerous when used improperly or interacting with other medications.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is currently reviewing submissions from the pharmaceutical industry about the use of social media, and is expected to release new rules by the end of the year.

The role of social media in educating the public is something that should not be underestimated. Eric Ruth of the Delaware Online said,

On both sides, there’s little dispute that social media could prove to be an enormously positive force in wellness, whether it’s in helping patients cope with a disease or alerting them to potential dangers. But that’s where the views quickly begin to diverge.

Jim Edwards of BNet provides a summary of the main submissions made by major pharmaceutical companies, and the entire submissions can be seen here, including a 500-pg transcript from a public hearing on Nov. 15, 2009. Most of the drug companies are requesting that they not be held liable for content they do not control.

One of the interesting submissions is by PhRMA (@FDASM) which is requesting a prominent universal symbol placed on all pharmaceutical company generated content.

Also interesting is that Edelman, a public relations agency that would presumably assist drug companies as clients, is suggesting that companies should be held responsible.

And Edelman should know.

There are the strategic challenges of using social media and still providing complete information. Judy N. Donnelly of the Journal of New England Technology stated,

“They are doing a high-wire act. How do you have clear disclaimers in 140 characters?” asked John Moore, head of Cambridge-based Chilmark Research. Or 99 characters, for that matter, which is the limit for a Google ad. The companies yelled foul, so the FDA held open hearings on the issue of social media this past November, and plans to issue its first set of guidelines on the subject this summer or fall. Until then, many companies have been treading carefully.

Then there is some of the historic blunders by pharmaceutical companies in the social media area, which include Facebook fan pages on medical conditions which do not disclose that they are written by drug companies that sell products to treat these conditions.

The public relations industry calls this technique “astroturfing,” where an artificial impression of grassroots movement is provided, and is considered unethical by many in the field.

Perhaps ironically, the landmark case on astroturfing involves an Edelman campaign for their client Wal-Mart, which resulted in an enormous backlash.

It’s fitting then that Edelman having learned from its mistakes would advise the FDA and pharmaceutical companies that care of the commercial and possible financial consequences from entering social media in the wrong way.

The grass might be greener on the other side, but it doesn’t smell nearly as good when the dog talks a walk.

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