“Shame on you”: an emerging pharma social media crisis

By Daniel Ghinn

User research informs education website

The launch of a Facebook page by pregnant mothers in the USA angry about KV Pharmaceuticals’ pricing of its newly FDA-approved synthetic progesterone product, Makena, raises once again the urgent need for pharmaceutical companies to plan ahead for social media engagement.

Let’s take a brief look at the facts around this emerging PR crisis for KV.

  • Approved by the FDA on February 4, 2011, Makena is the first FDA-approved drug to prevent premature births.
  • Makena has also been granted orphan drug status by the FDA, meaning that only KV Pharmaceuticals will be able to make and sell it for the next seven years.
  • As KV Pharmaceuticals say in their statement, “Prior to FDA approval of Makena, mothers who could benefit from therapy faced significant barriers to access due to the absence of a commercially-available, FDA-approved product”.
  • In fact, prior to FDA approval of Makena, the drug, which is relatively cheap to make, was available from pharmacies who compounded their own drugs and doctors could order it at less than $20 per dose.
  • KV Pharmaceuticals has set the price of Makena at $1,500 per injection, and has established a patient assistance program to support eligible mothers, based on income.
  • Since KV Pharmaceuticals’ announcement of the price point, there has been some negative feedback amongst traditional media titles around the world.
  • On March 10, 2011, the Facebook page titled ‘Shame on you, KV Pharmaceutical and CEO Greg Divis’ was launched.
  • By today, March 17 2011, the Facebook page has over 550 fans and, perhaps more importantly, they are highly engaged in discussions about the product, brand, and the price point.
  • There is no evidence that KV Pharmaceuticals has yet engaged with the growing Facebook community around the page.

This is not the first time that mothers angry at the behavior of pharmaceutical companies have used social media to voice their outrage. Johnson & Johnson will not be quick to forget its faux pas in 2008 when advertising pain drug Motrin. The company quickly learned that offending consumers around sensitive issues can create a powerful backlash via social media.

For Johnson & Johnson, the long term outcome was not necessarily a bad one. The company has since gone on to become one of the industry’s most admired pioneers of proactively engaging patients and consumers through social media.

What can we learn from KV Pharmaceutical’s emerging crisis?

Whilst traditional communications processes might have been adequate for most public relations challenges in the conventional world of the established media, social media has completely changed the rules of engagement. And consumers are not playing by the same rules assumed by pharmaceutical company crisis management plans based on traditional media.

The reach and speed of a platform like Facebook completely change the environment in which corporate and brand communicators operate.

Here are just a few ways in which social media is different from traditional media:

  • The ‘journalists’ of social media do not call your press line to ask you for a quote before they publish
  • Social media publishers ‘go to press’ at any time of day or night
  • Compelling stories have the potential to achieve huge reach very quickly – before you have even woken up
  • In social media, everybody has a voice, instantly.

So who are these new journalists? Reading through the comments written by the many Facebook users who have posted on the ‘Shame on you, KV Pharmaceutical and CEO Greg Divis’ page, they include mothers, medical experts, and other interested consumers. Primarily, I would suggest, key stakeholders for KV Pharmaceuticals. In fact, the levels of engagement taking place and the community action being prompted (such as the many calls posted for people to write to their senators) are in some ways the kind of engagement that many pharmaceutical companies would love to be part of.

The big challenge for KV Pharmaceuticals, I would suggest, is that the conversation is taking place without its involvement.

So what to do?

So what should a pharmaceutical company do in the current situation? Preparation is key, so I will start by offering a few brief advice points for companies other than KV Pharmaceuticals – those who still have time to prepare for such a crisis.

Social media crisis planning

  • You cannot prevent a social media ‘outburst’ against you, but you can be prepared for it. So my advice is, don’t ever think ‘this won’t happen to us’!
  • If you are already engaging with consumers from a corporate communications or brand point of view, you will have a distinct advantage and established channels through which to reach influential social media users. You will also have had some non-crisis experience in handling social media communications. So my advice here is to establish channels and systems for engaging consumers through social media now, before the crisis. Build trust and show you are approachable online – make yourself available for engagement, even over difficult issues. You might even lower the risk of the crisis happening.
  • Don’t panic if something does break out. Plan ahead. Know who is responsible for social media engagement, and ensure that they are well equipped.
  • Put online engagement in the hands of senior, well-informed and empowered team members. If they need equipping in emerging communications channels, seek the advice of experts. Creation Healthcare provides digital media training and coaching for senior executives in pharmaceutical companies.
  • One way to prepare in advance is through scenario planning in a ‘war-room’ – find out where the bottlenecks and weaknesses are and resolve them.
  • Establish an early-warning system. Look for signs such as negative media coverage, especially online, and monitor social media conversations. Consider how empowered social media users might respond.

Now, if you are already in a social media crisis, it may be too late to take the steps above right now although you may appreciate the need to implement them rapidly. Right now however, you need to plan for the immediate resolution of the current crisis. Here’s my advice:

  • Assign responsibility to a senior communications director.
  • If the senior communications director is not already actively using social media, ensure that she or he works in partnership with an experienced social media expert from your company. If you do not have such an expert, my recommendation is to urgently seek the advice of an external and independent expert such as Creation Healthcare.
  • Join in the conversation. Firstly, you must show that you are listening.
  • Respond to specific issues wherever you can. Refer to resources you may already have published in response to traditional media coverage. But don’t rely solely on these.
  • Whatever you do, act like a human being. I would suggest that the primary reason for lack of trust of pharmaceutical companies amongst consumers is when they communicate solely with a corporate, impersonal ‘face’.
  • Learn from the wealth of good social media engagement already taking place amongst pharmaceutical companies.

Creation Healthcare is a specialist in healthcare engagement for pharmaceutical companies. For confidential advice about engaging the people who matter to you, contact us.

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Meet the Author

Daniel Ghinn

Daniel has been at the helm throughout the company’s life since 1998. His rich expertise in working with pharmaceutical businesses has enabled CREATION to build business solutions that fit our clients’ needs.

Daniel is married to Jo, has three children, a cat, a dog, 28 fish, and 160,000 bees.