AstraZeneca’s Social Media Strategy Reflects Regulatory Obstacles

AstraZeneca’s social media presence may seem somewhat restrained. Indeed, that should come as no surprise considering the legal and regulatory hurdles the firm jumps through before communicating with consumers and the medical community. While for many businesses getting started in social media involves little more than simply launching Twitter and Facebook accounts, it took the global pharma firm around six months to settle on its approach to social – and that seemed like quite a feat in the vacuum of the highly-regulated pharmaceutical industry.

“From soup to nuts, it took us less than six months” to get approval to launch a corporate blog, YouTube channel, and Facebook presence approved by internal legal and regulatory authorities, said Gigi Peterkin, AstraZeneca’s associate director interactive media. Peterkin spoke yesterday about the firm’s approach to social media at a Business Development Institute conference on Social Communications and Healthcare, held yesterday at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

“We didn’t hire an agency and make a mock-up and go through all those motions and then call legal and regulatory and say, ‘What do you guys think?’ We involved them in the building process.”

Pharma marketers are struggling to find appropriate approaches to social media engagement, particularly since the Food and Drug Administration has yet to provide clear guidance on what they can and can’t do when interacting with consumers in social media environments. It’s why companies like AstraZeneca – while they recognize the importance of establishing presences on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube – are taking to social with great deliberation.

“We determined who in the organization would drive the strategy, so for corporate it’s corporate affairs, specifically corporate communications. But we also determined who our other subject matter experts would be,” explained Peterkin. “If we were going to be having disease state conversations, who on the brand teams do we need to bring to the table? To get this approved and off the ground, who did we need to have sitting at the table having this conversation?”

The company also made sure to “get commitments from stakeholders for quick turnaround” on post approval, she said.

Pharma companies are also subject to scrutiny from consumer advocates concerned about them presenting appropriate information associated with their drugs when communicating in social channels. Just Monday, for instance, The Center for Digital Democracy sent a letter to the FDA regarding pharma brands and their use of Twitter. “If a marketing tool, such as a space-limited micro-site, mobile application, or ‘tweet,’ is unable to satisfy basic consumer-protective measures such as the fair balance requirement, that tool should be considered inappropriate for the promotion of pharmaceutical products,” stated the letter.

Despite AstraZeneca’s apparent dedication to exploring social media as a complement to its other communications channels, the content it posts to Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube profiles and channels reflects the care AstraZeneca takes not to skirt even perceived guidelines. Its YouTube channel offers only a handful of videos, including one featuring the firm’s CEO discussing the future of pharma, and another taken during a speaking engagement about the company’s work with The American Cancer Society.

The drug maker often uses its Twitter account to promote press releases, to promote events where executives are speaking, or to make note of industry news. Its last Twitter post was made on May 4. The company is also careful about what others post on its pages. For example, people cannot post to AstraZeneca’s Facebook wall, according to Peterkin; this prevents them from posting anything about off-label uses of its drugs. All comments on Facebook are evaluated before being posted.

It all makes for somewhat sterile content, and in some cases even a meta conversation – about social media. A blog post on the company blog, for instance, discussed the importance of the FDA establishing social media guidelines for pharma companies. A rare discussion topic on its Facebook page addresses the use of Twitter as “a discussion starter” for dialogue that may need to continue offline.

Follow Kate Kaye on Twitter at @LowbrowKate.

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