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29.04.2010

Social Media Policy for healthcare companies

An increasing number of pharmaceutical and healthcare companies are venturing into social media, whilst still many hesitate. Are the ones who have started right to proactively participate or are the ones waiting right to be cautious? A common concern voiced by both groups is the lack of direction from the regulatory bodies. Whilst I understand that all industries have their rules, I question if this is really a reason to not be actively engaging customers and patients online?

It may help if you consider social media as just a buzz word(s) for people contacting you online. What’s being said is not necessarily anything new and processes for handling enquiries, complaints and even adverse events should already be in place.

What is needed is an effective social media policy. First for internal use and then second for the public. In both instances this will establish the boundaries and expectations. It will state what you will and won’t be engaging about and how you will be doing it.

What goes into an internal social media policy?

Starting with an internal policy will set the ground rules for your organisation and employees. Everyone should be very aware that everything said online can be monitored and that company policies on harassment, ethics, disclosure of information and company loyalty apply in and out of the workplace. An update to your existing communications policies should suffice. What you allow your staff to say in emails and on the phone should be no different than what they would be allowed to say online.

Get internal buy-in and use the knowledge of your staff

The internet is used by people in their everyday lives, so use the experience of your employees to define policies and best practices. What you want to achieve is not a list of what can and can’t be done but instead a definition of what is expected of people.

Bring together teams from different areas of your business and brainstorm scenarios. Let them decide which areas of social media are most relevant to their existing work i.e. customer services takes on social media monitoring. You will be amazed at how perceived problems can disappear. These teams should meet regularly to update each other, to discuss issues that have risen and to revise policy. Adopting this procedure will give you a social media policy that is in-line with your corporate values, has buy-in from your staff and brings you closer to your customers.

Who should be responsible for Social Media?

As much as possible it is best to let those departments who currently speak directly with the public and media carry out your social media activity. They will already be trained to handle all manner of enquiries and know how to escalate issues internally. You should not be frightened of what you might hear or get asked in social media. Review your internal processes and if you find a scenario you couldn’t deal with then look to fix that rather than try to hide from it. As many brands outside of healthcare (Taco Bell, Dell, Ford, Nestle) have found out you can’t stop an issue that the public want to talk about. Worst still, the more you try to stop it the worst it can get as Sanofi-Aventis experienced as a result of a Facebook page that wasn’t even theirs. You need processes and people in place ready to respond promptly without looking around for guidance.

The benefits of freedom to speak

That is not to say that people in other roles have no place in your company’s online engagement. If you want to build relationships and trust with communities then it is your people that will do this. As Dennis Urbaniak (VP US Diabetes, Sanofi-Aventis) pointed out in his recent interview about Sanofi-Aventis’s experiences with social media, it is important that ‘all teams learn how to engage in the space – rather than have just a company voice – as it provides a more personal contribution’.  So give them the training and guidelines for using the tools. Let them know when they can and cannot use your company logo and when they should state that their views are their own and not that of the company. Then make sure that the process of escalation for managing issues and crisis is readily available and well publicised within the company.

Dealing with problems

Any corporate initiative or marketing campaign should have its strategy defined before anything starts. The same applies when using social media. It is all very well having a Twitter and Facebook page but what happens when there is a problem there or the next big thing comes along? It would be right to remember that first and foremost this is a strategic communication activity.  Dennis Urbaniak goes on to suggest that a central hub of information – most likely a blog on your own URL – is an essential foundation to your online engagement strategy. Johnson & Johnson are a good illustration of the value of this approach. Their blog http://jnjbtw.com/ is authored by various members of their senior communication team, some of whom (like Marc Monseau) in turn have a sizable following on Twitter where they mention their blog posts amongst other tweets (Twitter messages).

This hub gives you a controlled platform from which to publicise your social media policies, post your opinions and respond to comments left by the public. From here it is then possible to venture out on to other platforms and social networking sites, with well trained and confident employees who can communicate safe in the knowledge that you have the systems in place to deal with all eventualities.

In the second part of this article I will be looking at whether the presence of a social media policy has any impact on the success of your engagement strategies.


If you are in the process of defining your social media policy and want to ensure buy-in from all stakeholders then consider running a strategy workshop with Creation Healthcare. We have successfully run these for numerous healthcare organisations and would be delighted to tell you more about how it could work for you.

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