Social Media Engagement in Pharmaceutical Industry Hindered More by Internal Lack of Social Confidence than External Regulations, New Research Finds 

NEW YORK, June 5, 2013 – It is widely recognized that pharmaceutical companies have been slow to master effective social media engagement strategies compared to other industry sectors.  Building on Socializing Your Brand: A Brand’s Guide to Sociability research by global public relations firm Weber Shandwick in partnership with Forbes Insights, Weber Shandwick Health explored how global pharmaceutical companies are using social media today to engage key audiences.

Social Media Engagement in Pharmaceutical Industry Hindered More by Internal Lack of Social Confidence than External Regulations, New Research Finds

The findings from the new study, Digital Health: Building Social Confidence in Pharma, identify a number of paradigm shifting conclusions. The most surprising finding is that regulatory restrictions are no longer the primary barrier to social engagement. While regulations are a critically important and persistent concern, pharma marketing and communications executives report that they are challenged to a greater extent by socializing their strategies internally, instilling social media confidence in their teams and aligning the right resources.

Patients are increasingly harnessing the Internet to gain knowledge about health conditions and even self-diagnose, leading to a more empowered health consumer and more informed patient-physician conversations. In this new age of participatory medicine, pharmaceutical companies must start by understanding what health communities want and then use digital technologies to reach them with information that meets the demand and takes into account applicable regulations in their markets

Laura Schoen

President Global Healthcare, Weber Shandwick

The research consisted of 12 in-depth telephone interviews with senior in-house pharmaceutical executives responsible for social media decisions.  Interviews took place in Europe, the United States, Asia and Latin America.


“As social channels become increasingly important and quite frankly, unavoidable, pharmaceutical companies are no longer waiting for regulatory bodies to clarify what they can do,” says Stacey Bernstein, Director of Weber Shandwick’s US Digital Health Practice. “Today, the biggest barrier for authentic pharma engagement in social media rests in the need for better internal alignment and understanding of the medium. We need to build social confidence within pharma.”


Digital Health: Building Social Confidence in Pharma offers communicators with a guide to becoming more socially engaged by offering 10 rules of engagement for building and maximizing social confidence.

10 Rules of Engagement: Building Social Confidence in Pharma Based on our in-depth interviews with industry professionals, Weber Shandwick recommends the following strategies to help pharma companies maximize their social confidence.


  1. START SMALL – Test the waters with focused projects – perhaps around corporate goals, news and reputation issues – to gain an understanding of what works, how to begin finding audiences and building reach. Interviewees agree that starting small, such as with pilot programs, is key to gaining the experience and assurance they need to build their digital social strategies.
  2. PREPARE BUT REMAIN FLEXIBLE – Many state that preparation is important, principally to anticipate problems and devise solutions. However, interviewees caution against devoting significant resources to developing a fully “buttoned-up” strategy, as it will change and evolve over time. They describe how they learned, adjusted and needed space to experiment without the pressure of stringent expectations or metrics.
  3. FOCUS ON THE CONTENT, NOT THE CHANNEL – Anything you can do offline, you can do online, as long as your content adheres to current regulatory standards. Companies have had difficulties with regulators when they have not followed standards that apply to non-digital rules of communication.
  4. CHOOSE YOUR CHANNELS WISELY – Some interviewees portray industry colleagues as quick to jump into social media simply for the sake of “being there” and they advise on a more strategic approach, especially in choosing platforms.
  5. ENSURE TRANSPARENCY AND HONESTY – Interviewees insist on clear rules of engagement and making them plainly visible on all social platforms. Some companies make a digital code of ethics available to both internal and external audiences. Others point to “softer” and “more genuine” tones as more effective with consumer audiences.
  6. DEPUTIZE A PERSON OR TEAM AND GIVE THEM FULL SUPPORT – Allocating staff resources for social endeavors and providing appropriate training and support are key for successful social programming.
  7. BRING OTHERS INTO THE FOLD – Working to gain the support of internal colleagues, especially from legal, regulatory and medical teams is critical. Additionally, including socially-supportive leaders from business units in strategic planning will ease the process of resolving any issues that arise in social media programming.
  8. RAMP UP INTERNAL EDUCATION EFFORTS – Sharing the benefits and best practices around social communications will go a long way towards gaining broad support for the medium. Some interviewees are engaging outside experts to evangelize social platforms to internal company stakeholders.
  9. STAFF FOR SOCIAL CONFIDENCE – A large proportion of interviewees find the level of current staff experience to be lacking, while others recognize that they require additional resources to effectively execute social media programs.
  10. CONTINUE PUSHING THE LIMITS OF ROI – While no one has answered the unique ROI (return on investment) challenges faced by the pharma industry, it is imperative to persistently seek better ways to articulate the ROI from social media.


Digital Health: Building Social Confidence in Pharma demonstrates that some of the obstacles often cited by pharmaceutical companies are manageable and simply require better internal communication between departments and fresher, more adaptive organizational structures.  The opportunity now exists to take steps to more fully integrate social media within company walls while enabling deeper relationships with those external to the organization to yield true integration.


For more information, please click here to read the full report.