Deconstructing Pitts’ Guiding Principles for Pharma Social Media Taking a Closer Look

Author: John Mack
MosesPeter Pitts, author of DrugWonks Blog, has put together 11 “principles that must serve as the basic substrate of regulated social media participation” (see here). Pitts offered these principles because he is urging the pharma industry to participate in social media and to not wait for FDA guidelines “not because of its potency as a marketing vehicle — but because it’s the right thing to do.”

Let’s take a closer, critical look at “Pitts’ Principles” and discuss how successful the pharma industry has been at following these principles to date.

Principle  1. “We engage in social media to help improve the lives of patients and advance the public health of our nation.”

“improve” is the key word here. We all have different definitions of what it means to “improve  the lives of patients and advance the public health of our nation.” I, for example, think it is very important to make sure all Americans have affordable healthcare insurance and support efforts to close the gap in Medicare Part D coverage (ie, the “doughnut hole”). The drug industry may not agree with me 100% on this. Lilly, for example, hosted a Twitter “chat” (#mmeds) that tried to convince people that Medicase isn’t broken, so don’t fix it. After the chat, I asked “Was Lilly’s #mmeds Twitter Chat a Discussion or a Press Conference?” because there was little “engagement” with the audience to discuss pros and cons or answer pertinent questions (read this post). Also see “More Pharma Twitter Chats: Medicare is Topic.”

Even if we agree on how to improve patient lives, it has not been proven that social media actually can help in this effort. There are plenty of other ways that the drug industry can — and does — do things to help improve patient lives. Perhaps social media can help in those efforts (see, for example, “Boehringer Ingelheim and Ashoka Make More Health via Social Media.”

Principle 2. “We will thoughtfully engage in social media while remaining in compliance with both the letter and the spirit of FDA regulations.”

The word “thoughtfully” requires definition, IMHO. There have been many occasions when pharma companies have seemed to put little thought into their social media activities (see, for example, “BI Masters the Art of WOM through Its ‘Parrots,’ er, Spokespersons“). 

Seriously, however, “thoughtful” implies best intentions as in showing consideration for the needs and sensibilities of other people (eg, “how thoughtful of you!”). Pfizer lacked “thoughfulness” when it promoted on FaceBook a Chapstick ad that angered quite a few women (see “Pfizer’s Facebook Fiasco: Chapstick Slapstick Ad Uses Woman’s Ass as a Prop“).

Principle 3. “Our social media engagements will have both strong public health themes and appropriate marketing communications.”

“appropriate marketing communications” is the big elephant in the room that cannot be dealt with UNTIL the FDA says what is and what is not “appropriate.” This requires more than being compliant with the “spirit of FDA regulations” as noted in Principle 2. It requires being compliant with the “letter” of FDA regulations. Of course, without the “letter” being written by the FDA, there can be no compliance with it.

Principle 4. “All social media messages and partnerships must be accurate, appropriate and transparent.”

Pitts said “One principle that runs as a red thread throughout all of these 11 principles is transparency. Real, honest transparency — not the usual translucency that ‘in compliance’ often brings.”

I can’t agree more. But this is where the drug industry has had and will continue to have problems. I can cite many instances of lack of “transparency” in pharma’s social media activities that I have blogged about. For example, during a Lilly-hosted Twitter chat about Medicare, I suspect an employee or agent hired by Lilly posed as an ordinary citizen (@ellsbelles3) who posted “I keep hearing that Medicare Part D is working and not to change it. what does that mean?” This sounded suspiciously like a setup from a phony ordinary citizen similar to “Joe the Plumber” (see “Was Lilly’s #mmeds Twitter Chat a Discussion or a Press Conference?“). Although I suspect that Lilly was not being transparent about this, I cannot prove it. That’s the problem with transparency in social media — nobody can prove you are not a “real patient” and it’s very easy for unscrupulous players to manipulate the game (ie, conversation).

Principle 5. “We believe that social media presents multiple opportunities to learn more about how our products impact the lives of patients.”

Sounds good to me. I hope that pharma is actually listening and learning. It would be interesting to know exactly what the industry is learning about its products from monitoring social media. However, very few companies will even admit they are monitoring social media for fear that FDA will learn that they are not reporting adverse events they hear about (see Principle 7). See comments from Casey Ferrel at the end of this article for a counterpoint.

Principle  6. “We believe that social media engagement allows us to correct errors and misperceptions about both our company and our products.”

“correct errors and misperceptions” is really a slippery slope. Who defines what is “correct” and “not correct”? There are many scientific studies and clinical trials whose results are challenged by the drug industry but that are accepted as correct by other experts. All sides of a debate involving scientific evidence should be discussed with the (transparent) participation of the industry. But if the goal of the drug industry is to “correct” other points of view, then the industry will not be engaging in discussion but trying to manipulate it. Also, keep in mind that the industry itself has often been caught make false statements about its own products — hence all the warning letters from FDA!

A little pedantic aside: “misperceptions” is a curious word choice. Since Pitts is known to choose his words carefully, the distinction deserves some analysis in the present context of “misperceptions” of drug products by the general public.

According to Grammarist: “To perceive is to become aware of something directly through the senses. To conceive is to form something in the mind or to develop an understanding. So to perceive is merely to see something, and to conceive is deeper. But perception often involves passive evaluation, and this is where the line between the verbs perceive and conceive becomes blurred. Think of perceptions as relatively shallow interpretations, and conceptions as more creative interpretations involving substantial thought or imagination. Think of a misperception as a mistaken impression… and a misconception is a mistake of imagination or interpretation.” A simpler distinction: Misperception, means to not understand, misunderstand; Misconception means a mistaken thought.

It’s possible that patients, for example, might believe that a muscle ache after being prescribed a statin for high cholesterol is a side effect of the drug. This could be a “misperception” (not a a true pain) or a “misconception” (a real pain but not caused by the drug). Another example: some patients may believe the risks of a drug outweigh the benefits and then decide not to adhere to the treatment regimen prescribed by their doctors. Is this a “misconception” or a “misperception?” Of course, it may be neither: the risks may actually outweigh the benefits!

Anyway, perhaps a better word to use in this context would be “misunderstandings.”

Principle 7. “We believe in using social media to discover adverse drug experiences, which will then be addressed off-line.”

I like this, but would like to see more real-world examples. I recall only one example of a pharma company that has publicly embraced discovering adverse events (AEs) via social medias: ie, UCB, which partnered with PatientsLikeMe to create an online, open epilepsy community that includes a pharmacovigilance program to monitor the site for adverse events and report directly to the FDA adverse events associated with UCB products (see “Finally, a Drug Company Embraces Social Media, AEs Included!“). I haven’t heard much about this lately — did UCB find many adverse events and what else did they learn (ie, re Principle 5)?

I’ve seen several studies by agencies that work for the pharmaceutical industry that suggest very few reportable AEs are found on social media sites. PatientsLikeMe, however, reported that 7% of 500 randomly selected posts from the 364,000 posts contributed by patients within the PatientsLikeMe Forum during 2009 incorporated all four elements required for reporting an adverse event (see “PatientsLikeMe Reports High Rate of Adverse Event Reporting Among Its Members“).

Also see:

Principle 8. “We will strive to interact in a timely manner, appropriate to the general expectations of social media.”

I expect there’s a difference in opinion of what is meant by “timely.” As has been demonstrated many times, pharma can get into trouble when it does not respond in a timely fashion to social media crises as was the case with Sanofi’s response to a disgruntled patient (see “Disgruntled Patient Shuts Down sanofi-aventis Facebook Page“). The ultimate decision of whether a response is “timely” or not is up to the customer (ie, patient, physician, or payor). Whether “striving” is adequate or if “succeeding” is better, remains to be seen.

Principle  9. “We believe that social media must be regularly monitored and our programs measured in real time to gauge effectiveness.”

See my comments under Principle 5. The industry also is struggling with how to “measure” social media campaigns. There is also a question whether or not social media should even be campaign-oriented, which implies a beginning and an end.  We’ve already seen pharma companies shut down Facebook pages and abandoning their social media audiences (see “Pharma Facebook Pages Being Phased Out: A Good Run While It Lasted! Did Facebook Kill the Beast?“). Companies are blaming new Facebook rules for the shut-downs, but I think “campaignitis” has hit — new marketers come on board and want to run their own “campaigns” or the “campaigns” were not as successful as expected. Which leads me to ask, How do you measure social media success?

Principle 10. “We respect but are not responsible for user-generated content that resides on sites we do not control.”

This should not be a principle. It’s just common sense. Duh! But wait! The word “control” needs to be defined. Comments to FDA by several drug companies addressed this (see “Accountability for Pharma Content on Social Media Sites“).

Principle 11. “We believe the path to engagement is through useful and thoughtful content and commentary.”

I’ve already commented on “thoughtful” (see Principle 2). “engagement” is a key word here. What do pharma marketers really think of when they think of “engagement?” Is it the same as what you or I think of? If pharna social media programs are controlled by marketers or corporate communications people, it’s difficult for me to think the goal is not just “engage” but also to “convince.” That was my criticism of the Lilly chat regarding Medicare (see “Was Lilly’s #mmeds Twitter Chat a Discussion or a Press Conference?“). Also see “Will Patients Find Value in Discussions with Pharma Marketers on Social Media Sites?” 

A book can be written about this stuff and I suspect someone out there is already finished with the first draft. I thank Peter Pitts for drawing up these 11 principles around which we can organize an ongoing discussion. I invite your comments via Pharma Marketing Blog.


Casey Ferrel (@Casey_CEI), lResearch Analyst at Cutting Edge Information said…

Interesting analysis, John. I’d love to comment on each point, but alas, I shall just start with two – Principles 5 and 6.

I just conducted a benchmarking report on digital marketing in pharma, and in benchmarking social media activity I found that listening is actually one of the most pervasive forms of social media “activity” that companies are engaged in right now. More than half — 56% of surveyed companies — concede to using social media for market research and competitive intelligence. Whether this is to gain competitor insight, to profile consumers, to monitor brand and corporate sentiment, or some other form of listening, the fact of the matter is that it is occurring. I was pleasantly surprised by this data; in fact, much of the data I collected depicted an industry further along the social media path than many people perceive. As we have all heard a thousand times, listening is the first step in social media engagement, and it certainly would seem that pharma is on its way in this regard.

Similarly, companies I profiled through survey data and personal interviews with marketers and social media heads revealed a more robust AE response infrastructure than one might expect. At several companies, the task of monitoring for AEs is either farmed out or is tasked to infomatics/IT/marketing/corporate communications. The dragnet can’t be comprehensive, of course, and the level of watchfulness varied in those interviews, but the idea that every company has stuck their head in the sand when it comes to social media AEs was not borne out in the research. So again, it appears companies are moving ahead on this front as well, albeit slowly.

As an aside, @ellsbelles3 is indeed a curious case. When you look this account up, only one tweet appears (and not the tweet you quoted!). A look at the account’s followers (17) and following (153) reveals a decidedly political (Republican, to be precise) bent. I think it’s a little much to insinuate that the account was positioned specifically as a puppet by Lilly to pose an industry-friendly tweet, but I do think that the legitimacy of the account is suspect at best. With Twitter’s insistent allowance of pseudonymity, I fear this will remain a common feature of tweetchats involving controversial or politically sensitive topics. When it comes to transparent exchange on Twitter, it takes two to tango.

Issue: Vol. 10, No. 18
Publication date: 1 December 2011

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