The Difficult Art of Restraint

This is a time when biopharma brands are structured around integrated communications in order to create deep touch points with target audiences—giving customers multiple avenues to find out important information that can impact health decisions. Brand leaders who once supervised separate budget-line streams for advertising, direct marketing and PR, now shift perspectives and expectations with the growing influence of the audience-building connective tissue of social media—where brand content and visual paths converge.

According to the annual Makovsky-Kelton Survey, 24% of consumers reported using at least one or a combination of social media channels, including YouTube video channels, Facebook sites, blogs and Twitter feeds with links to other resources to seek healthcare information. Social media is no longer the afterthought of communications, it’s often the intersection for different tactical arms that are part of the overarching brand or corporate campaign.

So when the content of online news—Twitter, blogs or other user-generated content—suddenly takes a sharp, unexpected negative turn, what’s a reputation champion to do? Imagine the cascade of negative news resulting from a jab from an opinion-oriented outlet such as Fox News or MSNBC combined with a steady drumbeat of retweets of ridiculous news segments. Suddenly, one unfounded news report can clone into tens if not hundreds of 140-character gremlins.

In a world of partisan self-reporting—where Wikipedia ranks (distant) as the second most popular health info site after authoritative WebMD—people want to believe what they read. What happens when the company disagrees? When the pundit’s hypothesis is just plain off target?

Biopharma companies face an age-old polemic in guarding brand reputation: “To act or not act?” To protect reputation requires a fact-based response. Companies are expected to speak on behalf of their corporate and product brand integrity. But, now in the world of partisan media there is a need for analysis beyond numbers of naysayers and, more so, whether these media platforms and the self-reporting journalists are allies—like whales and plankton—and co-exist to gain attention. Also, what is the sphere of influence? One noted lone-wolf blogger can become the source for broadcast and print follow-in stories.

Response Can Come At a Cost

To defend and provide an accurate message in response to “hypothetical comments” comes at a cost. Restraint is a strategic consideration. To engage is to open the door to continued social media conversation. Suddenly, instead of pundits speaking to themselves around an issue and tiring after a few hours of exchange, they mobilize around the company’s response with a renewed energy.

In an age where media have converged, the rules around guarding reputation have shifted. The decision to engage must now consider the risk/benefit of venturing into the minefield. Communicators will be measured not only how and when they act, but when they exercise restraint.


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