Social media, with its real-time communication needs, is a perplexing new territory for biopharma. For years, the industry has charted its communications carefully through legal and regulatory waters. We do communicate—often! However, press releases and patient education materials—and even advocacy partnership activities—are carefully examined months in advance in order to ensure accurate, outward customer messaging. The operative word is “reach.”

In contrast, social media is a conversation. It’s about “engagement”—leveraging digital technology to encourage real-time, real-world connection. Platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are exciting and compelling because they bridge vast distances, cultural differences and levels of expertise—and connect people with the help of a hashtag—instantly. It’s a goldmine for engaging interested stakeholders. Yet the industry as a whole hasn’t quite figured out how to reconcile this immense opportunity with its real-world anxieties around FDA social media use ambiguities. Instead of engaging, companies mostly use these platforms as newswire extensions—a way to push out the same press releases via a new medium.

Take Twitter, for example, and the varying degrees of pharma engagement. While @Pfizer_news has more than 43,000 followers, this handle is for “news and investor communications from Pfizer, Inc.” Tweets include bit.ly links to company announcements and industry news. Bristol-Myers Squibb (@bmsnews) tweets out both company announcements and patient education tips and disease awareness facts (such as the one found at bit.ly/BMStweet) to 14,000 followers. @Roche, with 30,000 followers, shares tweets that convey a passion for science (bit.ly/RocheScience), patient safety and innovation (bit.ly/RocheInnov), and organizational values (bit.ly/RocheValues). Still other industry icons are absent from the Twitter community altogether.

Biopharma is not avoiding social media. It is, however, inhibited by regulatory implications that impact the ability to meet the patient in this growing medium. How can the industry allay those real-world anxieties, acknowledge regulatory hurdles and create engaging, stakeholder conversation via social media? By applying one of its strongest skills: long-term planning. Here are two tips:

1. Prepare for Spontaneity: New product launches and indications don’t sneak up unexpectedly. Leading up to approval, there is a clear sense of timing and what clinical labeling to expect. Think in advance about “what I would want to say in that moment” and put tweets, Facebook posts—even images and captions—into the review system weeks and months ahead of a milestone. Once pre-approved, these can be used to engage in real time—sharing the company’s excitement, compassion and commitment as news unfolds—with language that has been cleared in advance.

2. Say How You Feel: Social media posts shouldn’t just be news related—stakeholders can find the details of any clinical or financial announcement from multiple other sources. Unlike press releases, social media communications can really highlight the company’s point of view. Social media enables conversation—crowd-sourcing around ideas and comments. Rather than talking at audiences, which feels out of sync with the very personal mission to save and improve lives, use social media to facilitate conversation and convey compassion. Sharing opinions—whether on a policy issue or advocating for helping a patient community—builds corporate reputation.

With more people using smartphones, and the countless social media apps available, engagement across these evolving platforms is a critical customer relations connection. Leadership requires followership. Accessing skilled planning and innovative thinking—two best practices at which the industry excels—enables companies to unlock the potential of social media as a mechanism for more direct, intimate connections with key communities.

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