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  1. Analysis
April 6, 2022

Rules of engagement: navigating around traps when recruiting for clinical trials via social media

Pharma has a chance at redefining its relationship to the public, allowing for direct interaction with potential clinical trial participants via social media. But what's the risk?

By Urtė Fultinavičiūtė

Need to Know:

  • Social media can be a powerful tool to directly advertise ongoing clinical trials to target patients, but such an unregulated space increases the risk of companies being exposed to negative or untrue comments.
  • While having an inhouse press team allows a pharma company to have a dedicated crew for its communication plans, it may not have the same level of networks and resources that an external PR team might have.

Due to the swift action of the pharmaceutical industry to develop vaccines and therapeutics for Covid-19, its reputation among the public reached all time high favourable reviews. Public confidence towards the sector last year was at 62%, double to what it was before the pandemic, notes Rob Jekielek, managing director of market research company Harris Poll.

While the pharma industry’s score has since dropped by 15 points to 47% as the world focuses on other global events, there’s still opportunity to mine this reputational rise to benefit clinical trial progress.

While there was reluctance to enrol into clinical trials, the public now understand the importance of participation, explains Ignacio Guerrero-Ros, PhD, account supervisor at healthcare public relations firm Russo Partners. Indeed, due to the pandemic, the industry has a once-in-generation opportunity to redefine its relationship with the public, adds Shahar Silbershatz, CEO of corporate reputation management Group Caliber.

Which begs the question: what can the clinical trial industry do to capitalise on the public’s confidence, as well as maintaining it at a relatively buoyant level? We look at the perks and risks at engaging with the public via social media specifically for recruitment, and the pros and cons of managing a company’s own PR needs inhouse rather than outsourcing them.

Social media and clinical trials: a double-edged sword

Social media is a highly targeted method of reaching audiences which can help accelerate the search in the right subpopulations, says Deborah Cockerill, managing partner at healthcare public relations firm Sciad Communications. Social media is a valuable tool to build up company visibility to specific patients, and even for patients to find companies running clinical trials they are after, notes Neil Hunter, communications director at healthcare public relations firm Image Box Communications.

While using social media to advertise an ongoing clinical trial may be straightforward, the posts being flooded by negative or untrue comments is a real risk. Social media is an unprotected and unregulated platform, Hunter explains.

And due to the fast nature of social media, negative comments can take a life of their own while the company is still trying to decide how to address such comments, Hunter adds. Pharma companies, particularly large ones, can have a delay to their public response due to many layers of internal approvals, he explains.

Guerrero-Ros has a different approach: pharma companies should not at all publicly respond to negative comments, but instead contact the commentator privately and provide the information they need. Any public replies could risk more damage, he adds.

Silbershatz offers a third view, in that negative social media storms are a distraction, as it does not necessarily impact stakeholders that are relevant to the company. Instead, pharma companies should concentrate on communicating information to their stakeholder universe, he adds.

But clinical development information that is usually geared for stakeholders only leaves the wider public forgotten, Hunter notes. Pharma companies should share details to the wider public clearly, he says, adding there is the need for media literacy for the public.

Nevertheless, the best solution to combat negative social media issues is to avoid such situations in the first place. It is important to make sure messaging is fine-tuned and culturally appropriate, especially when reaching out to communities that are traditionally underrepresented in research, says Reena Patel, independent content specialist at Echo Public Relations. Customising social media messaging can also prevent from reaching unwanted audiences who might reacted negatively, she notes.

Pros and cons of outsourcing comms

Pharma companies can manage their public profile internally or by outsourcing their needs to specialist firms. Alongside the growth of the pharma industry, PR businesses catering to pharma also grew, Guerrero-Ros says. Small-to-medium pharma companies may not have enough resources to have in-house communications expert, which leads to outsourcing. “We [PR firms] are facilitators with a megaphone to help get the message out there,” Cockerill says.

Internal and external PR teams have inherent components that can be at the same time both positive and negative, Hunter says. The value of an external PR firm is that it has pre-existing relationships with media contacts or other relevant stakeholders, as well as offering an objective perspective on the information a company wants to release, Guerrero-Ros notes.

Pharma companies often seek external help to improve investor perception. While PR firms can offer this service, pharma companies need to be reminded that it will still come down to them to deliver milestones promised to stakeholders, Guerrero-Ros notes. “We are very clear from the beginning that us as communicators have no power over their stock, but we can assure that an article on Wall Street Journal will not necessarily increase it,” he adds.

Internal PR offers a targeted approach

However, external PR have the disadvantage of being a separate entity from the organisation. Internal PR teams have direct access to key and C-level employees, whereas an external agency might need some time to find the right person and arrange interviews, Hunter says. Additionally, an internal PR team can concentrate on a single company’s needs, compared with external PR firms that split their resources to cater to multiple clients, he notes.

The optimal blend is to have a small internal PR team working with an external agency, Hunter says. The internal team’s specialist knowledge of the company can be shared with the external team’s knowledge of stakeholders and the market, he adds. Both teams need to collaborate on collective strategies to present to the C-level management and board, who then can make informed final decisions based on professional advice, he notes.

Board members with communications background can improve pharma companies’ comms-related decisions, Hunter says. He adds: such an approach is uncommon in the wider industry but such a simple consideration that companies can make.

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