You won’t get much argument from the business community that social media is a vital marketing tool. Its capabilities for connecting with customers and creating a brand presence are hard to beat.

However, for industries that are subject to strict regulatory rules, navigating social media is not as simple as creating accounts on Twitter and Facebook. It takes a greater investment of time and energy to stay within the letter of the law, especially when the law may not been evolving as quickly as social media.

The pharmaceutical sector is one example of an industry that must tread the social media world with great caution. Businesses have to adhere to rules about when they can directly mention their products and how they interact with possible patients. Here are some of the barriers that heavy regulation has created for the drug industry, along with some examples of how savvy businesses have overcome these obstacles.

The Regulator’s Power

Any advertising for the pharmaceutical industry is tightly regulated by the government. Since medicines require scientific and medical expertise to understand, drug companies were once restricted to promoting their products solely to doctors. In the early 1990s, as more patients began to take an active role in their treatment, drug makers began to advertise to consumers directly. As a result, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration introduced rules to require pharma companies to be truthful and accurate in those promotions.

The main challenge is the snail-like speed at which the FDA moves toward creating firm rules. The regulator has been slow to address new developments in direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising, such as online promotions and the rapidly changing world of social media marketing. The industry’s entry into social media has been tentative at best, since violating DTC rules can have serious repercussions.

The only recent hint of advice from the government was a report released in December 2011 entitled: “Guidance for Industry Responding to Unsolicited Requests for Off-Label Information About Prescription Drugs and Medical Devices.” This report deals with how the pharma industry should approach questions about unapproved uses of their products. The guide explicitly mentions interactions on Twitter and YouTube, but that’s the only direct acknowledgement of social media the pharma industry has received to date. That’s a very narrow subset of the social interactions you could have about a medicine!

Pharma’s Response So Far

While waiting for more information from the government, most pharma companies have been attempting to adhere to the DTC rules. Most of these companies treat social media as a channel equivalent to television or radio. This can take require a heavy investment of time, however, since social media involves interactions with the general public. These interactions can be much trickier to monitor than the Nielsen ratings!

For instance, one of the first pharma-run Facebook Pages — Psoriasis 360 from Janssen — closed down in March. A large number of posts didn’t meet DTC regulations because they mentioned the company’s prescription-only psoriasis medicines. This is prohibited in the pharma industry, so the offending posts had to be deleted. Janssen said the heavy volume of posts that were removed meant that it was no longer a viable place to foster conversation among patients.

Some Success Stories in the Field

Pharma companies shouldn’t lose hope, however. Bayer U.S. recently launched a Pinterest account that highlights the conglomerate’s many divisions. A variety of pinboards focus on sustainability, innovation, and events in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields. By avoiding direct discussion of products, the company can focus on safer subjects that are unlikely to create legal problems.

There are also success stories on Twitter. German drug maker Boehringer Ingelheim has a global Twitter feed filled with articles and retweets about more than just prescription drugs. The content ranges from studies about how doctors are using social media to press releases about the company.

Boehringer is very active in its use of hashtags and the company frequently engages with other Twitter accounts. It has very few tweets mentioning its medicines. This approach makes the company a good source of information for anyone interested in health care, which could explain why the feed has 10,465 followers.

What Can Your Company Learn From Pharma?

If you are also working in a rigid regulatory environment, there are a few lessons you can take away from the pharmaceutical industry. First, be sure that you understand your current legal restrictions. Stay in communication with your legal personnel and keep an eye on the news for any regulatory changes.

Also, be sure that your entire team understands the importance of following federal and state restrictions while continuing to build a social media presence. If everyone you work with is clear on the legalese and what you hope to achieve with social media, there will be less chance of legal infractions.

What legal and governmental challenges has your company faced in entering social media? Let us know in the comments!

[Image credits: Atlanta Scott, Noel Feans, mattza, Keoni Cabral, Luther Blissett]