In mid-July, US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer suffered personal social media nightmare: hackers from the Anonymous movement found the password to the company’s Facebook account by simple trial and error and defaced Pfizer’s page with derisive content. The hackers’ hoax was only a part of a whole series of difficulties that the medical industry has faced in social media in recent weeks.
At the end of July, the homeopathic company Boiron made legal threats against an Italian blogger and learned the so-called Streisand effect. Computer scientist Samuel Riva wrote on his homepage that Boiron’s largest revenue generator, a cough medicine, contains no drugs according to scientific standards. The Streisand effect worked. It means that any attempt to remove something from the Net by means of a legal action certainly attracts the attention of the Internet community. Indeed, online media and the prestigious ‘British Medical Journal’ eventually picked up the case. The only feasible option Boiron has left is to retreat.
German companies do not get off scot-free either: Bayer had to issue an apology in June in the UK for twitting in the official Twitter account about a new variant of the erectile dysfunction drug, because the tweet advertised a prescription drug, which is illegal in Britain.
Not only many pharmaceutical companies apparently lack competence despite multi-million dollar marketing budgets, they are also hampered by the strict laws on prescription drug advertising. Sanofi Aventis and GlaxoSmithKline have already become the victims of several virtual flash mobs: patient initiatives called to flood the Facebook guest books of the corporations with critical questions about prescription drugs. However, according to the requirements of the regulatory authorities, the pharmaceutical companies cannot answer them themselves. For this reason, the questions from users often have to be deleted. In view of the flash mob attacks, the moderators of the pharmaceutical companies were a little behind.
Moreover, beginning 15 August the new rules apply to Facebook user accounts. From now on the companies, including those working in the pharmaceutical industry, have to authorize comments on their Facebook pages. About 31,000 of Pfizer’s loyal Facebook friends now diligently leave new comments on the company’s virtual pinboard. Since hardly any sensible comment without any reference to the product portfolio is possible on the pages of pharmaceutical giants, only a sea of Pfizer’s advertising messages remains, everything else is removed.
The competitors’ reactions to the change in rules were drastic: more than 30 companies including Sanofi, Johnson & Johnson, AstraZeneca and Merck & Co shut down their Facebook pages. Not only do they fear the comments of disappointed patients, but also public descriptions of side effect associated with their products, which they should promptly pass on to the regulatory authorities.