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Healthcare in Europe is vastly different to healthcare in the US. The key difference that UK visitors notice on a trip to the US is the plethora of prescription-only medicines advertised on television. In contrast, this kind of brand marketing to consumers is forbidden in Europe and all prescription-only drug marketing is tightly regulated.

In the UK, the industry body is the ABPI (Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry), which provides pharmaceutical companies with guidance on marketing best practice.

Just because it is an industry body does not mean that it is a light touch as Swiss drug firm Roche Pharma found out when it was found to have carried out actions that brought discredit on, or cut confidence in, the pharmaceutical industry, and suspended for six months.

The Prescription Medicines Code of Practice Authority (PMCPA) administers this. These guidelines don’t currently address online marketing techniques, instead the ABPI and PMCPA are taking a wait-and-see approach to digital campaigns penalizing those companies which overstep the mark.

One can understand their hesitancy, as conventional wisdom on geography and rule-of-law generally do not gel easily with the global nature of the web.

This non-action also means that there is a disincentive for pharmaceutical companies to innovate in the UK marketplace. There is no first-mover advantage in digital marketing, so generally is a lot of talk about online marketing and social media but not a lot of activity, something that Red Door Communications managing director Catherine Warne recently complained about on PR Week Online. Consequently, there aren’t that many campaigns that become the talk of the industry.

One campaign that stood out recently was work that German pharmaceutical Boehringer Ingelheim (BI) did to promote the results of its RELY study when the results were presented at the European Society of Cardiology congress at the beginning of September.

BI used tweets from their corporate Twitter account (@Boehringer) to provide real-time highlights of the study results as they were presented.  They also posted a photo to demonstrate the buzz around the survey results showing that "demand is high to get into the RELY press briefing".

Boehringer Ingelheim’s campaign may seem quite staid to digital marketer, but in the world of European pharmaceutical marketing, this was daring.  Industry blogs PharmaGossip and Pharma Marketing closely followed the campaign.

How did they do it?

  • Break down content into bite-sized chunks. All the tweets were taken from the talking points for their press conference showcasing the RE-LY study results.
  • Have a personality. The tweets were told from an ‘eye witness’ perspective of the press conference and the pictures of the attendees queuing to get into the event added to the personal feel of the Twitter stream.
  • Don’t reinvent the wheel. All of the content used pre-approved wording taken from press materials, thus avoiding a lengthy vetting and legal approvals process which would have otherwise killed the spontaneous nature of the campaign with red tape.

I feel inspired, how do I start?

The first step in any organisation’s online activity is to set out rules of engagement including any legal and regulatory restrictions. This encompasses issues such as:

  • Content vetting and approvals process.
  • Integration of online social media activity with traditiional marketing techniques and patient group activity.
  • Safeguards for physician | clinician-orientated communications.
  • Are comments allowed, if so who should do them?
  • Online monitoring, who should do it and how should this process integrate with adverse event reporting processes. An adverse event is where a consumer discusses ill effects that they had during the time that they were taking a medication. These event reports are given by an EU directive and the ABPI have published guidelines on reporting events that have been discovered through market research to the MHRA (Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency)
  • Corporate tone and style guide, the tone that Boehringer Ingelheim use may not accurately reflect the image that your company may want to portray.
  • How should online fit in with crisis management procedures, in concert with Department of Health and other government bodies?

Different companies are more cautious than others and may be relying on different legal counsel so there are no definitive examples of guidelines that I would point to as best practice. However once this ‘sand pit’ has been defined you can then move forwards with planning online activity.

Ged Carroll

Published 6 October, 2009 by Ged Carroll

Ged Carroll is director of digital strategies at Ruder Finn. He is also a trainer and contributor to Econsultancy.

2 more posts from this author

Comments (7)

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Rebecca Caroe

Jed, you are right on the money here with this timely article.

I started in June working with Thinking Pharma to write daily challenging blog posts designed to get the pharmaceutical industry thinking about "possible" new ways of doing business.

Here are two of my personal contributions.


Just a quiet question on disclosure, is BI a Ruder Finn client?


about 7 years ago


Ged Carroll

Hi Rebecca,

No BI aren't a Ruder Finn client. I deliberately chose them partly for that reason, rather than using an example closer to home.



about 7 years ago


Silja Chouquet

Very pertinent post and much needed- We need to start having an open discussion on what regulations mean to the social media in EU.

We also need to examine what it means to communicate to patients in EU. I think the needs and attitudes of patients in EU with regards to pharmaceutical information are dramatically different.

Finally, I think this is the first step a company needs to undertake when engaging with social media: Identify and understand the ongoing conversation - who is talking where and what are they saying about the disease as a whole, not just your products. It is one when you are vetted with this information that you can start defining which content is appropriate to which audience.

about 7 years ago


Ged Carroll

Hi Silja,

Thanks for the post, due to the nature of the adverse reporting procedures in particular, that's why I put sorting out guidelines first, but you are absolutely right in terms of landscape | conversation analysis in terms of importance



about 7 years ago


James Harper

Love that BI is pushing the envelope, action like this from big pharma is what is needed to push the PMCPA into action. Currently the PMCPA operates on a case law basis, which means that they will not provide guidence on anything that has not yet been tested via complaint and the subsequent findings (I am sure we have all had the "grey area" conversation with Heather Simmonds). It would not suprise me if BI's RELY outreach was not one of the first such cases to go through the PMCPA thanks to a competitor/clinician lead complaint.

Question is, with the speed of progress in customer and consumer engagment thanks to the use of social media can the PMCPA continue to refuse to give guidence without case law as reference? Surely now is the time for the PMCPA/ABPI to finaly become proactive in developing guidence that looks forward and not backwards.

about 7 years ago

Jonathan Moody

Jonathan Moody, Freelance at Language4Communications

Very interesting story and debate - it will be interesting to see how it pans out - let's hope the relevent professional bodies provide the necessary guidelines.

I also second Silja's advice of identifying and understanding the ongoing conversation about the health issues/diseases as well as products.

It is important to structure these conversations according to actions that companies can take in response to them (which may be restricted in the case of pharma): adverse effects, alternative use, misinformation, claims defects etc

about 7 years ago


media transcription company

Interesting discussion, Got more idea from this article.

almost 7 years ago

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