Making it up as you go along
Pharmaceutical marketing life was easy once (wasn’t it?). New drug, brand essence, positioning, key messages, sales aid, leave pieces, mailings and several hundred reps. Job done, show me the money. At the back of it all a slightly inconvenient ABPI Code of Practice there to provide direction and sanction with most situations nicely covered; tick list, thought bereft, compliance heaven.
Regrettably times move on. Osama Bin Laden, Afghanistan, Wayne Rooney, Strictly/X-factor, Cheryl Cole, debt crisis, coalition, Arab spring and (throughout the lot) a social media revolution that has left pharma companies and their agencies floundering for answers. The irresistible force of mass social communication meets the immovable object of pharmaceutical compliance and a dithering pharma looks for solace in more rules, a new Code, a bigger one perhaps, that covers everything like it did in the old days. Alas it cannot and should not happen - to interpret the rules we have already you need ethical understanding not more rules.
It’s not that you don’t need rules – of course you do. Euthanasia is illegal, a bad thing to do in law but some highly ethical people are all for it as well as some equally highly ethical people being against. Society has to make the call because you can’t a bit in favour of it and a bit against – you have to choose whether you are going to allow it or not.
For pharma though the rules of the game I’d argue are as clear for the digital communicator as for the representative in the surgery. Don’t lie, don’t bribe, don’t try and sell what isn’t approved, don’t promote medicines to the people who don’t know enough about them (‘the public’), be transparent.
All well and good but when does spin become a lie, when does a service become a bribe, what’s promotion and just how transparent exactly do you have to be?
The answer to these questions lies not in defining further limits and restrictions but instead reconnecting with the ethical principles that underpin the rules we already have. Sounds fancy but everyone reading this is fully equipped to do that by virtue of being human. Unfortunately though what the social media revolution has demonstrated above all else is that a slavish dependence on rules in the past has anaesthetised our innate human ethical capabilities. Pharma people who wake up in the morning carrying opinions on complex ethical issues such as capital punishment, abortion and embryo experimentation mysteriously seem to lose the ability to make ethical arguments when they enter the corporate front door.
This can’t carry on. The digital age offers a myriad of opportunities, boundless interaction and immense creative potential. A code can’t be written to cover that lot and it certainly won’t keep up – we’ll have to work it out as we go along and over the coming weeks I’m going to be discussing how.
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