By KATIE KUEHNER-HEBERT, a freelance writer based in San Diego with more than two decades of journalism experience and expertise in financial writing
In May, Facebook sales representatives sent their pharmaceutical clients a notice that instructed them to retain the ability for people to comment on their Facebook pages.
"We think these policy changes support consistency for the Facebook Pages product and encourage an authentic dialogue between people and businesses on Facebook," the notice stated. "However, we also understand that these changes may lead you to re-evaluate your strategy and presence on Facebook."
Jim Dayton, senior director of emerging media for InTouch Solutions, a Overland Park, Kan.-based marketing firm, said that pharmaceutical companies are concerned that the new Facebook policy might get them into trouble with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for allowing people to make claims about their products that were not previously sanctioned by the FDA.
Pharmaceutical firms and other types of companies might be able work around the new policy by monitoring comments before they are posted, experts said.
Still, companies must walk a fine line between protecting their brand and allowing people to speak freely about their products and services--lest they turn off customers who are increasingly demanding to be heard.
"It goes both ways--positive and negative comments," Dayton said. "If someone makes a claim that a particular drug cured their diabetes, that comment could not be on the company's Facebook page."
InTouch and similar firms offer pharmaceutical companies the option of constantly monitoring the comments on their Facebook pages to weed out those that do not comply with FDA regulations. Alternatively, companies can use third-party applications by InTouch or others that direct people to a separate page in which their comments are held for a time for further review.
Such applications do not have the same functionality as Facebook's native walls, in that comments aren't automatically reposted on the commenter's news feed unless the person allows the application to obtain the names of all their friends. While some people might not mind this, others might get turned off, which could, in turn, turn them off to the company with the Facebook page, Dayton said.
"Keeping the Facebook native wall up and running with comments enabled and 24/7 monitoring is riskier than putting a third-party application in place, but you will probably have slightly better engagement on a native wall," he says. "It's just a balancing act."
Pharmaceutical companies aren't the only ones that should take precaution in creating Facebook pages on which people can comment. Firms in other regulated industries such as financial institutions and insurance companies need to make sure comments aren't leading others to assume that their products can guarantee financial gains, said Edward DeMarco, general counsel of the Risk Management Association (RMA).
Companies in all industries should diligently manage their brand on social media, said Edward DeMarco, general counsel of the RMA.
"Companies can put all sorts of policies in place for employees to comment, but it's harder to monitor customer comments--and they can take on a life of their own," DeMarco said. "So the company has to have a plan in place on how they are going to manage their reputation in a virtual world. They need to react to comments quickly, or risk having them jump from virtual media to the mass media--the longer a negative comment is in the popular press, the more people tend to believe it."
Companies should have an incident-response team and a communications plan in place that they can mobilize when their brand is affected, he says. If inaccurate negative comments go viral, companies may want to respond using the mass media as well.
LEGITIMATE CRITICISM WELCOME
However, if social media comments are not damaging or inaccurate--and are not reposted much by others, companies may choose to ignore the comments and allow those people to vent.
"Companies all want to have a commonality of interest with their customer base, so they don't want to appear too remote by having an Ivory Tower engagement," DeMarco says. "The response has to be reasonable in response to the threat of the posting."
In other words, companies should not be afraid to allow the posting of negative comments about their products and services if they legitimate.
"It's showing the world that you're willing to take criticism--that's what social interactivity is all about," said Peter Pitts, a partner in the New York-based public relations firm Porter Novelli. "Social media is messy. People who are used to talking nice and neat are going to be very frustrated, but that doesn't mean that social media isn't important, powerful and fun."
InTouch's Dayton said that his firm advices clients not to delete Facebook comments unless they feel that they would get into trouble with regulators.
"If it's a legitimate point or topic that needs to be addressed, our clients should definitely address it publicly on Facebook," he said. "All industries in this day and age have a problem with being seen as corporate entities, only in it to make money. But social media is good at showing the human side of companies--that there are people there who care about the customers they serve."
As for those regulators, according to Pitts--also former FDA associate commissioner and now the president of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest-- the government should be promoting as much free speech in social media as possible, which would enable agencies like the FDA to learn more about what's happening in the "real world" of product use.
July 1, 2011
Copyright 2011© LRP Publications