Obama’s successful use of social media; lessons for Pharma
Rebecca Crouch, August 2009
As our consumer counterparts eagerly lap up the bountiful offerings web 2.0 (social
networking orientated internet) has to offer, there is no need for Pharma to shy away in
the corner. Gone are the days of awkwardly navigated websites (web 1.0), and here to
stay are the second generation of internet-based services facilitating communication;
inviting people to collaborate and share information through a plethora of social
networking, wikis and communication tools.
The truth is that social media, which can take many different forms including blogs and
micro-blogging (blogger and Twitter), and social networking (Facebook and MySpace),
can be used as valuable marketing and PR tools and there is no reason why healthcare
communications cannot jump on the bandwagon. Consumers are talking about our
clients and their brands, and it is essential that we become involved in these
conversations. The longer we take to engage in these media platforms the larger the risk
we take in becoming sidelined.
Obama: the rise of a social media hero
The biggest success story of recent times is of Barack Obama and how his integrated ‘in
line’ communications strategy of both off-line and on-line media, helped to win his place
in the White House. Where as previously, it would have been thought that social
networking sites were no place for politicians, Obama and his team proved sceptics
wrong. By creating an online presence on an array of social networks, Obama managed
to widen his audience outreach by tapping into these online communities, across a wider
The American public was already using these online arenas, not only to discuss
Obama’s policies and campaigns, but to also tune in to watch his rallies and speeches.
The public were looking for information, actively searching for it, so the Obama
campaign team needed only to make sure it was readily available on the platforms
voters were searching on – social networking media. By engaging them through sites
like Facebook1, Twitter2 and YouTube3, Obama managed to encourage and empower
these new found advocates, using these channels not just to talk to supporters but to
listen to them as well, responding to concerns and queries, and also as a means of crisis
management. By using the fact-checking microsite www.fightthesmears.com4, Obama
was able to clarify policy specifics and opinions, allowing potential voters to check their
facts. This enabled Team Obama to manage negative messages quickly and effectively.
Social media provided a platform that allowed Obama to seek out potential brand
advocates easily, in places where they were already discussing his policies in a positive
way, and foster their support into active campaigning on his behalf. It also provided the
ideal platform to engage and tackle any criticisms, to listen and make changes.
With over 2 million supporters on Facebook and 200,000 followers on Twitter, not to
mention the vast number of other supporters in other social media, Obama was able to
reach a previously under-exploited portion of the electorate: the under 30’s. A
combination of positive brand management and active engagement with the electorate
through social media enabled Obama to reach a demographic usually left out of the
political process, and who ultimately won him the election.
Lesson’s for Pharma
The first lesson about social media is that it must not be viewed as a direct revenue
driving tool, but as a brand building and opinion management tool. Social media is a way
of building online advocacy and brand image and this is where Pharma is falling behind
the curve. As Pharma cannot enter a traditional product-to-consumer dialogue (due to
MHRA and ABPI regulation), social media could be used to talk openly about specific
health issues – risks, prevention and treatments – to raise awareness and educate the
public about specific risks, which would help to build a positive brand identity and public
image. And in fact, there are some pioneers out there already doing it.
Johnson & Johnson’s Marc Monseau has launched Facebook pages5, YouTube
Channels6 and blogs7; GlaxoSmithKline have created a ‘More than Medicines’ blog8 and
Twitter account9, stating that they are ‘uninterested in promoting brands and instead
[wish to] create conversation around issues facing the healthcare industry in the USA.’
It is important for this to be done openly and in a way that is not perceived as being
directly beneficial to the company (e.g only discussing illnesses which you market the
treatment/prevention for). Bloggers will see through this immediately, leading to negative
PR that spreads quickly online.
An example of this is the Twitter feed sponsored by Novo Nordisk, racewithinsulin10.
Fronted by Charlie Kimball, a type 1 diabetic, F1 racer and user of Levemir (an insulin
detemir) – racewithinsulin was both a risky and brave step for Novo Nordisk to take. It
has been greeted by the world of science bloggers with open arms by some and
controversy regarding transparency and issues around promotion by others. Although
Kimball is said to have ownership of the account, with now more than 500 followers,
racewithinsulin follows no one and remains alone; the account is certainly creating noise
in the Pharma forums and making an impact by creating some interesting debates and
Consumers are increasingly reliant on accessing information from both on- and off-line
platforms and the rise of web 2.0 means that social media has become an integral part
of this. Although the social media landscape continues to evolve, the importance of
digital reputation and the power of online communities should not be underestimated. It
should be welcomed as a means to communicate with key audiences and influencer
groups. In an industry based on targeting specific audience groups in exciting and
innovative ways, PR practitioners working in Pharma communications would be foolish
to ignore the Obama success story. Rather, they should be welcoming J&J, GSKs and
even Novo Nordisk’s efforts.
For further information on this, or any other healthcare communications programme,
please contact James Harper on email@example.com