Social Pharmer – Reflections and Reactions

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I can’t believe it’s already been more than three weeks since the HealthCamp Boston (#HCBos) and Social Pharmer unconference (#SocPharm) took place at the brand-spanking new conference facilities at Microsoft’s New England R&D Center in Cambridge, MA. That means, it’s also been more than three weeks since my last blog post… Sigh!

So, my sincere apologies for the long absense, but it feels like it’s been a whirlwind of non-stop activity ever since the lead up to the event on 4/21, which was immediately followed by the Health 2.0 Conference, and then followed by my out-of-town family visiting for a week, and two crazy weeks at work – Phew!!! I hope that I’ll get back on track following this post and start updating the blog regularly again – SORRY!

Anyway, I really wish I could have cloned myself during #HCBos + #SocPharm, so that I could have been in two places at once, but since I was responsible for organizing/running Social Pharmer, I was unable to attend #HCBos, but you can find additional info about the event at the HealthCamp Boston website, as well as an archive of the “live tweet stream” for #HCBos here (via CoverItLive).

As for Social Pharmer, if I were to sum it up in a single sentence, I would say that the event was a resounding success, based on: the number of participants, the level of interaction, the quality of the presenters/facilitators, and the level of commitment and passion to keep “social pharming”.

Overall, the combined event attracted around 140 registrants, of which there were approximately 40-50 people at the #SocPharm portion at any one time, which was about the capacity of the room anyway. The mix of #SocPharm attendees included people from: biotech/pharma, ad agencies, internet health portals/stratups, healthcare professionals, publishers, conference organizers, etc… And among them, professional specialties varied from: marketing, sales, and PR/comms to legal, regulatory, medical, IS/IT, and more… Furthermore, lets not forget that this event was held in conjunction with #HCBos, so there was also a mix of Health 2.0 “empowered patients/advocates” in the mix as well (if they could get into the room).

So, while the majority of participants were made up of marketing and agency folks, there was a definite mix of opinions and viewpoints that made for lively multi-faceted discussions, which — in my mind — was a big part of the what made this unconference such a success.

One of the key elements of an “unconference” is the high level of interaction/discussion between/among the presenters and participants, and I must say that I was definitely not dissapointed in this respect. In fact, IMHO, I would even go so far as to say that there was an impressive amount of discussion and contribution by ANY standard; even compared to tech/web unconferences.

I don’t plan on going into any detail of the presentations that took place during Social Pharmer, but I will be publishing (most of) the recordings from the event in the next week or two. However, if you’re looking for a great summary of the themes that were discussed, then you should definitely check out the article written by Amber Benson (Group Strategy Director, IMC2) in the April issue of Pharma Marketing News (see Pg. 27-32). You can find pictures from the event here  and also be sure to check out the following blog posts for more reflections on the event:

  1. Steve Woodruff: Social Pharmer Un-conference: A re-cap (sort of)
  2. Fard Johnmar: Final Social Pharmer Thoughts: Coming Back To Transparency
  3. Stuart Foster: SocialPharmer Unconference

Here are some quotes from the various write-ups…

Fard Johnmar:
We had a very lively discussion focusing on the following transparency related questions:

- What does it mean for a pharmaceutical company to be transparent?
- Is it possible for a pharmaceutical company to be transparent?
- What does it mean for a drug firm to be transparent in a social media context?

These are tough questions, with few easy answers.  I know as much as anyone that one cannot tell the world everything.  After all, we all have business secrets, proprietary technologies and competitive advantage to protect. However, despite these restrictions, is it possible for drug companies to be more forthcoming about other issues?  And, even if they want to, will regulators and lawyers (internal and external) let them?

Steve Woodruff

I’m sensing change in the air. There has been a quiet flood of pharma-connected people into Twitter of late (not due to Oprah!), and there is a restlessness with the baby steps that companies have taken thus far. The major challenge will be to harness and channel this creative energy into productive efforts – developing sound and sensible frameworks for new initiatives, outlining strategic roadmaps, and avoiding the regulatory backlash that would inevitably result from short-sighted abuse of social networking by misguided marketers.

We have a chance to do this right. Social networking, rightly utilized, can help pharma recover its declining reputation by providing an avenue for doing good and adding value. If you just want to “use” social media to grab a few short-term tenths of market share, please put on the brakes – now.

Stuart Foster
I think you have to balance a few things in order to start poking around at a successful pharmaceutical strategy for using social media. First, recognize that social media doesn’t end. It isn’t about a specific campaign, you can campaign within the model of social media channels but the firehose always needs to be open. The risk here is that you now need to constantly monitor it because the news cycle is lightning fast and can change dependent on the way in which the information comes out…

That being said, a number of interesting questions and ideas were raised today that definitely need to be investigated further. The will to create industry guidelines is definitely there: it just needs to be spearheaded by a group of like minded people. I’m guessing @Shwen, @pharmachameleon, @fardj, @jbernoff and @healthyjack are going to figure this out in the next six months if not sooner.

I did decide to boil down the day into a few quick points that I view as being essential for Social Pharmer to develop further. (All of these were touched on today.)

Key steps for Social Pharmer success:

- Expansion of Social Pharmer Ning group
- Creation of Social Pharmer Wiki
- Regular moderated conversations on Twitter #pharmchat?
- Try and build a model before regulators enforce one you

As you can see from these excerpts, a couple of the key themes raised were the need for some kind of industry guidelines and the need for change overall.

There was plenty of discussion around the need for pharma to get involved with social media — to interact with our customers and gain insights at a level that was never before possible; to genuinely engage with them and understand their needs; to provide better and more timely access to accurate and/or educational information… And as a “last hope for saving pharma’s battered rep”. 

With a common feeling that bordered angst and despair, most everyone agreed that without appropriate guidelines, there will be plenty of confusion about what would be considered “acceptable use” of social media when interacting with customers. Furthermore, recent examples like the 14 Warning Letters for Pharma sponsored links drive further confusion and frustration among the community. However, we were also reminded to “be careful what we ask for”, as we may not like what we get.

During the “townhall discussion” at the end of the day, we talked about “next steps” and how we can actively convert these discussions points beyond words and into actions…

One great suggstion was: instead of waiting for the FDA to issue some guidelines, why not collaborate with industry organizations, like PhRMA or BIO, to start developing guidelines through them? Or alternatively, why not come up with our own guidelines as part of a unified “coalition” and present those to the federal agencies for consideration?

Whatever the case, it was well understood that we can’t just sit back and wait/expect the FDA to draft some guidelines for us. And in fact, I just recently attended a teleconference by McDermott, Will, and Emery to do just such a thing, so there is definite movement and support in this notion.

On my part, I also revived the Social Pharmer Ning network that I had started in OCT 2008 as a follow up to a similar discussion with a small group at the Digital Pharma confernece. While there was limited activity the last time, I’m committing to really pushing this through and getting as many Social Pharmers involved, so that we have a common platform to discuss these issues and to start using these tools to drive our own movment, rather than just work seprarately and only talk about them at conferences. If you haven’t already signed up, please do so at — you’ll see that quite a few people have already joined in that conversation.

At the end of the day, however, what wasn’t mentioned as much, but is of utmost importances when we consider all this, is that as agents of a pharmaceutical company, we all share the responsibility for acting in the best interest of our customers and related consituents, and NOT those our share prices. To this end, I leave you with my favorite quote by George W. Merck (founder of Merck)…

We try never to forget that medicine is for the people. It is not for the profits. The profits follow, and if we have remembered that, they have never failed to appear. The better we have remembered it, the larger they have been.

2 Responses to “Social Pharmer – Reflections and Reactions”

  1. Grand Rounds Vol. 5, No. 37: The June Is Bustin’ Out All Over Edition | HIPAA Compliance News Says:

    [...] Pharma’s engagement with social media, look no further than Shwen Gwee, who organized the Social Pharmer unconference in conjunction with the HealthCamp Boston unconference I co-organized in late April.  Speaking of [...]

  2. Grand Rounds Vol. 5, No. 37: The June Is Bustin’ Out All Over Edition | HIPAA Compliance News Says:

    [...] into Pharma's engagement with social media, look no further than Shwen Gwee, who organized the Social Pharmer unconference in conjunction with the HealthCamp Boston unconference I co-organized in late April.  Speaking of [...]

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