Chris Iafolla
Chris Iafolla

It’s not exactly a well-kept secret that the pharmaceutical and biotech industry isn’t among the world’s most trusted. This runs in stark contrast to their seemingly noble intentions: to bring new therapies to market that improve people’s health.

With such an important mission, why do public trust issues seem to persist for healthcare companies? There are a lot of contributing factors that likely play a role, including perceptions regarding price hikes to access to medicines, but there’s no questioning that the pharmaceutical and biotech industry has a reputation issue on its hands.

O'Dwyer's Oct. '18 Healthcare & Medical PR MagazineO'Dwyer's Oct. '18 Healthcare & Medical PR Magazine

This is a real business problem. You won’t find “reputation” on any balance sheet but it’s most certainly something that impacts overall business performance. Look no further than the string of reputation harm that faced United Airlines in 2017. In two separate incidents, one where three passengers were denied boarding due to their attire, and one where a passenger was dragged off the plane after refusing to exit voluntarily, United failed to apologize or even respond in a timely manner. During this period of silence, United’s market valuation dropped to the tune of $1.8 billion. In a matter of days, United had done serious harm to its reputation, its relationship with customers and ultimately, its business.

Pharmaceutical and biotech companies are taking notice and evaluating how to change the discourse and engender trust with their stakeholders. One area where there’s opportunity to develop a different type of relationship is through digital and social media. It offers a more direct line to external stakeholders, an ability to demonstrate empathy and put forward a more human voice for a company. These benefits are well understood but adoption of digital and social media as more than a push marketing channel and a customer service vehicle in pharma remains low.

There are the usual hurdles that slow adoption in this industry. Regulatory and medical guidelines place significant restrictions on what can and cannot be communicated. A risk-averse culture often prevents pushing the envelope to embrace a customer-service mindset on social media. But those hurdles are nothing new. For years, we’ve dealt with the same restrictions and found ways to effectively communicate through digital and social channels. So, what’s changed? Trust. Trust in the companies and trust in the channels themselves.

Over the past 18 months, we’ve seen the trust in information communicated on social media called into question. What was once seen as a possible ready-made solution to form a more direct relationship with the customer is now facing its own scrutiny and all information is being placed under an intense microscope.

This was driven by a series of high-profile issues that garnered national attention. The first was the widely-held belief that foreign entities used social media to disseminate misinformation during the 2016 Presidential election. This was the first time that the use of social media for nefarious intentions rose to the level of being squarely placed in the national discourse. It caused people to question the legitimacy of content on social media channels and specific scrutiny was placed on content produced by companies as opposed to individuals. Just as this conversation was beginning to shift to the back burner, the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke. This caused more angst amongst pharmaceutical and biotech companies because it involved sensitive data, which in the world of healthcare, is always a hot topic. Put these two issues together, and the very thing pharma hoped would be a tool in repairing its trust issues ended up becoming a trust issue of its own.

This leaves pharmaceutical marketers in a predicament. Do they abandon the use of social media channels as a customer service mechanism that can help to build and repair public trust? Are the channels themselves a strong headwind against that effort?

Like most things, the answer is murky. What is clear is that social and digital channels can be used to unlock a more direct connection with the audience. A well-thought-out response plan and an escalation procedure that pinpoints who can make decisions quickly allows pharmaceutical and biotech companies to respond on social media in near real-time. This is a far cry from the seemingly impassable chasm that previously existed between healthcare companies and their stakeholders. With the advent of enterprise-ready chat bots and machine learning, we are also now able to take this response protocol beyond simply manual responses based on pre-approved response matrices. These tools allow us to apply the same business process but enable true real-time engagement.

As these tools reach maturity, in order to tap into their true potential, we need to address the thorny question of what does the audience really trust on these channels. There are so many factors that go into trust that it is important to uncover what and why a piece of content is more trusted versus another. It could be the channel itself that is more trustworthy; perhaps users prefer one channel over another as a source of information. It could be that the copy has the greatest impact on effectiveness or the creative that accompanies the content. It could also be the publisher itself and not the channel or content that has the greatest impact on trust. All of these are important variables to understand how to serve content across social media and how public trust plays a role in the efficacy of that content.


Chris Iafolla is head of digital and social strategy at Syneos Health Communications.