In the light of the recent tattle in the pharma blogosphere of the hijacking of Cialis’ brand identity and Lilly’s apparent inability to do squat about it, Shahid Shah, who besides being a healthcare IT expert is also becoming a corporate blogging evangelist, sent me this guest submission suggesting a little more specificity about blogging on pharmaceutical and regulated products. As many THCB readers know Shahid runs theHITSphere blog aggregator as well as his own Healthcare IT Guy blog. I also think many of his thoughts are applicable to other health care corporations concerned about blogging, such as providers and insurers. And of course I like his pitch to pharma companies to hire me to help them figure this out!
Corporate blogging is certainly not new but it hasn’t really taken off because executives are always nervous about public statements they make, especially if they run a public company. Until now only small firms, who have much to gain with direct 2-way contact with their customers, have really engaged their clients through blogs. Now, however, even the big companies as different as McDonalds and Microsoft have become corporate bloggers with different degrees of success.
The pharmaceutical industry is certainly one group of companies that could use increased goodwill that comes from direct contact with their customers. If anyone should be blogging from a corporate perspective it should be big pharma because what it does directly touches the lives of its customers in a way very few other industries do. The level of importance people give to their health and the way that they bond with their healthcare providers (and by extension the drugs they take) is very important. Most pharma companies are worried about the FDA and cite that as a big concern about why they don’t blog. But, I think that’s a mistake.
Pharma shouldn’t worry too much about what the FDA has to say specifically for blogs. Blogging does not impact anything that wouldn’t already be public anyway. For example, if a pharmaceutical firm has a call center where they answer questions about their drugs’ on-label use, a blog would be no different. In fact, drug firms can improve customer service by providing tips, tools, and guidance on how best to use their drugs. I would recommend that firms start to create blogs that start to tell stories of why scientists (in their own words) are focusing on certain diseases, how far technology has come along, how exactly drugs go from an idea to discovery to production. All these would bring customers closer to them, not alienate them. And, the FDA won’t complain about anything that doesn’t cause off-label use. I spoke with an FDA counsel this week and she basically said the same thing: anything that’s covered by existing guidance would apply to blogs, too (she didn’t provide official legal guidance, it was just a comment stating the obvious).
If a drug vendor starts a blog or discussion forum about its products and doesn’t mis-communicate about efficacy of its products or fitness for a particular purpose it shouldn’t get into trouble. Companies won’t have problems with regulators if they stick to the truth about their products and improve the way customers interact with them. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be careful about what they say — but that goes for anything a company says. It’s not something special to blogging but blogging does make it easy for people to say whatever they want (like folks do in an email).
So, if you’re not blogging today don’t blame the feds. If you’re not creating corporate blogs, it’s due to a lack of vision and innovation and perhaps a lack of respect of your customers, not the FDA. Guys like me and Matthew can help you devise an appropriate strategy to allow direct communication, improved customer service, and who knows in a few years people may stop thinking of big pharma in a poor light like they do now.
Oh, and by the way, don’t think that just because you’re not blogging about your own products that nobody else is. Nature abhors a vacuum and so does the blogging community. Third parties are already talking about your drugs and company in their own blogs and forums. Given the growing influence of blogs on consumers, pharmaceutical companies can not afford to dismiss comments made about their products by bloggers and must create their own presence within the blogosphere. Why not take the initiative and help navigate people to the “official” word about your drugs?