Currently, if patients or doctors look for specific drug information on AZ Health Connections, AstraZeneca’s new corporate communications blog, they won’t find any. And that’s exactly how AZ—along with pretty much every other pharma company engaged in the social media sphere—wants it.
“The one area we’re trying not to engage is specific questions about disease state,” said Earl Whipple, senior director in AstraZeneca’s corporate communications group and author of the blog.
Strict corporate control by pharma companies engaged in social media essentially destroys what makes the space so dynamic: the ability for users to express controversial information and personal opinions. Therefore, it’s no wonder that company-controlled blogs struggle to develop active communities, especially as they are pitted against private blogs and message boards where users can freely express their views.
The true downside of such close corporate scrutiny is that it drives patients to Web sites with imperfect or erroneous information that can adversely affect their healthcare decisions. Yet because pharma companies are leery of risking an FDA violation for offering incomplete information amid unclear Internet regulations, that is where patients go.
Luckily, FDA seems to recognize that there is a problem. On November 12–13, the agency will convene in Washington, DC, to discuss regulations governing pharma communications on the Web; it’s possible that relaxed regulations (should they emerge from the November meetings) will encourage companies like AstraZeneca to offer more social media content. Until then, however, it’s impossible for pharma companies to create an online community with the most comprehensive information available.
For instance, AZ Healthcare Connections’ comments policy may create a chilling effect on potential commenters—though it is the standard policy for pharma-produced blogs. It reads, in part, “We may not publish comments that could be misleading or confusing, or thinly disguised sales pitches for other products or services… We want to hear your stories, viewpoints and opinions—even if they are contradictory to ours.”
“In order to share accurate and relevant information on our company and key issues, we need to be part of the conversations [that are] happening,” said Whipple.
The question is: How exactly do you correct misconceptions about a product if they can’t be mentioned?
So far there have been no comments on the AZ blog. Besides the introductory post, the blog offers only company-line stances on FDA social media regulation and healthcare reform. If content can’t generate the type of product discourse pharma companies are looking for, perhaps a new approach to social media is needed to educate customers in an ethical and productive way.