To Tweet or not to Tweet: Europe’s digital conundrum

Twitter-BirdFor most pharmaceutical companies in Europe, the use of Twitter verges on an existential crisis. With social media regulations that vary from country to country and language barriers to overcome, companies often find themselves asking, ‘Why do I need Twitter and what value can Tweeting bring?’

Why do I need Twitter?

When you look at what pharmaceutical companies have flocked to Twitter, the majority of the tweets are coming out of the United States. As one of only two countries (the other being New Zealand) that is allowed to advertise directly to the consumer, the U.S. tends to throw caution to the wind when considering the use of social media channels such as Twitter. Whilst the tweets tend to be quite corporate in nature – covering items such as press releases, company overviews and CEO blog posts – the appeal of this format is obvious. It gives companies the opportunity to control their message and disseminate news directly to their followers for a fairly nominal cost.

On the flip side, if European pharma should try this tactic, the price could be much more significant.  Individual countries in Europe have restrictions in place to stop direct-to-consumer advertising. That, combined with the threat of considerable fines, may be more risk that companies are willing absorb. A well-known global pharmaceutical company found this out the hard way when it was reprimanded for tweeting about two medications in 2011. Though the company escaped without a fine, the decision in the UK by the Prescription Medicines Code of Practice Authority (PMCPA) set a cautious tone, instilling fear that even the slightest mention of a drug can result in a public rebuke.

Companies are now bound by the following PMCPA guidance on digital communications:

“If a company wanted to promote a medicine via Twitter it would have to ensure that if the medicine was prescription only, the audience was restricted to health professionals only.”

In a medium like Twitter, this is simply not possible.

What value can Tweeting bring?

Pharmaceutical companies have a lot to gain by using a channel like Twitter.  The apparent limitation of being unable to advertise could slipstream the companies into a more concise role. Rather than delivering details of their corporate environment, they stand to help patients better manage their disease and improve their profile by becoming thought leaders within a disease area. By improving the dissemination of information in the health environment, pharmaceutical companies stand to gain from an educated audience who are able to more easily recognize their symptoms.

‘To be or not to be’ – this is an allusion of a choice. With the equivalent of 8,123 copies of War and Peace tweeted every day, Twitter has become one of the most valuable business resources available today. The pharma industry has a lot to lose by sitting on the sidelines.