Drug Company Facebook Pages Face Mass Extinction -- Here's Who to Blame

Last Updated Aug 16, 2011 12:15 PM EDT

A mass extinction of pharmaceutical company Facebook pages began this week as Facebook's new rules enforcing the use of open comments came into effect Monday. Drug companies live in fear of users' comments in case they give misleading information about drugs or mention "serious adverse events," which the law requires companies to report to the FDA. Many companies simply switched off the comments function on their Facebook pages -- until Aug. 15, when Facebook banned no-comment pages.

Now, companies are jumping through bizarre hoops to keep their pages alive -- Pfizer (PFE)'s now pulls comments if they mention "a product," for instance -- and at least 13 have just gone dark.

Lost pages include Sanofi (SNY)'s VOICES, Johnson & Johnson (JNJ)'s ADHD Allies, and AstraZeneca (AZN)'s Take on Depression, according to the invaluable Pharma Facebook Deathwatch maintained by the Dose of Digital blog.

Companies appear to be evenly split between those braving the new, free-for-all Facebook environment and those bailing on the medium completely. Thirty-two pages have always allowed comments, which sounds promising until you note that a further 19 -- including big brands such as Merck (MRK)'s Gardasil and Bayer's "50 Years of the Pill" -- blinked out of existence prior to Aug. 15 for unknown reasons.

Drug companies are super-paranoid about social media following the hacking of Pfizer's Facebook page in July by the Script Kiddies, an adjunct of the Anonymous hacking movement. That incident came on the heels of a U.K. pharma regulatory body's admonishment of Bayer (BAYRY) for a single tweet that said, "First & only melt-in-the-mouth erectile dysfunction treatment launched by Bayer today."

Last year, the FDA banned Novartis (NVS) from using a Facebook widget that promoted its leukemia drug Tasigna.

Here's who to blame for the chaos:
  • The FDA: It has been two years since the FDA began a "review" in which it promised to write new guidelines for drug companies wanting to use social media to talk to consumers. Not a single new rule has been written. Drug companies are paralyzed, waiting for the supposedly imminent but never actually materializing new regulatory environment. In the meantime, the FDA applies the rules it made for the age of the newspaper to new media like Twitter and Google+.
  • The companies and their compliance lawyers: Facebook isn't brain surgery. There is software companies can use to filter and review comments before they appear and there are systems companies can use to monitor, collect and report comments that may contain adverse event information. The real problem is not user comments but companies' unwillingness to devote resources to monitor and engage in social media indefinitely, rather than as part of a defined campaign.
  • Facebook: Really, Facebook? Enforced comments, whether users want them or not? Wouldn't it be nice to allow the users on whom you depend to choose whether they want people commenting? This is all about money. Facebook knows that drug companies use Facebook for free advertising. With comments enforced, that environment becomes less palatable compared to display advertising, which companies must pay for.
Related: Dinosaur image by mcdlttx, CC.

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