Big Pharma Struggles With Balance in Social Media

Big PharmaGSK’s blog, More than Medicine, was launched in May after several months and based on feedback from inside and outside the company, says Michael Fleming, the company’s director of social media. Fleming says the response has been positive. “It has been a very interesting experiment,” he says. “We launched the blog after a several month pilot with feedback from inside and outside the company. The intent was to engage in a less formal way – to give people a better sense of our company and the people who work here,” Fleming says. ”The response has been positive and we have gotten excellent feedback. It has been a very interesting experiment – this very unique channel allows us to discuss topics in a way we didn’t have an opportunity to before. We continue to learn and ensure we are fully exploring to reach our constituents – physicians, patients and support groups. We’re always trying to maximize our exposure and message through digital channels and paid promotional activity.” Fleming also says the blog helps put a human face on the company.

Pfizer is also twittering on its products, partnerships the company has with other companies and includes speeches and press releases.

While social media has helped connect healthcare to the consumer, it is also making it too easy for companies to cross the line of fair balance while promoting their products online. “Fair balance” laws require the companies to put information on brand labels such as side effects and effectiveness. The FDA monitors advertising on all media platforms, including the internet, says FDA spokesman Crystal Rice. If the agency finds a company in violation of the “fair balance” laws, it sends out either “untitled” or “warning” letters to the company.

In April, the FDA sent out 14 untitled letters to the big names in the pharmaceutical industry, including Pfizer, Johnson and Johnson and Merck.

“The companies were all cited for misleading promotion in company-sponsored links on internet search engines such as,” Rice says. “Some of the violations included: broadening or inadequately disclosing the actual FDA-approved use of the drugs; overstating the drugs’ benefits; not providing any information on the drugs’ risks; and, failing to use the drugs’ required name, which causes the products to be misbranded.”

“They [the FDA] had directives several months ago, which was, how we ensure compliance with online advertising. We have standards for online advertising which ensures that we comply with the law,” GSK’s Fleming says, but did not provide specifics.

James Zipadelli is a freelance journalist whose work appears in Targeted News Service, and several publications in Boston.