On May 5 I participated in a Webcast that laid out considerations for businesses in pandemic communications planning. The attendance and coverage were great. But it occurred to me afterword that many of the things I was outlining were steps I would also recommend in preparation for almost any crisis, though the pandemic planning had a slant on it that included the aspect of social distancing as a public health strategy to stem transmission in a time of pandemic.
It also occurs to me as both the FDA and the pharmaceutical marketing industry face a tsunami of reforms aimed at them both, that the number of times a pharmaceutical company finds themselves with an issue to manage may be on the uptake in the coming months. So I thought it timely to outline a few considerations for crisis communications in today's digital age – whether you are a pharmaceutical company, a medical society or the FDA.
The classic crisis communications case study of Tylenol would be completely different if it had unfolded today rather than the 1980s. The speed and even sources of communications has changed drastically since then. Consider, for example,the presence of Mommy-bloggers and facts such as the growth of Facebook in just the past three years. In August 2008 Facebook had 100,000,000 people using it – seven months later, that number had doubled. And Twitter is seeing a jaw dropping growth rate that is something like 2500%. Communications has changed, and with it, crisis communications. That means a company should be taking steps NOW to enhance their ability to handle a crisis LATER.
What does that mean? Internally it means setting up internal RSS Feeds so that employees can get news that you want them to get quickly and in a segmented fashion. It also means ensuring that those who are active during a crisis have the internal capacity and understanding to monitor electronic media besides traditional media. It means they need to understand how to monitor what is being said in the blogosphere and on twitter, track the messaging, analyze it and then respond to it with online editorial outreach and getting counter messaging rolling back out on Twitter with key influencers there. It is easily done with some handy applications that help you do this. It also means understanding who is influential in the blogosphere and in twitter and who is not. There are some people who, if they are spreading mis-information can do a great deal of harm, there are others who really are a tree falling in the forest with no one to hear them. You don't need to waste your time on them, but you do need to be able to tell the difference. There are tools that can help with that as well.
You also need avenues of communication externally that are going to help you with speed in a time of crisis. That means more than slapping information on your Web site. That means you are relying on people coming to you for the messaging. Forget about that. You need to get the messaging out to them. That means the possible development of widgets such as FDA
did so well during the peanut recall. It also means that you have a Twitter account that has attracted followers who themselves have good solid followings. General Motors has one and used Twitter to counter misperceptions during Congressional hearings about financial aid to auto-makers.
(By the way, I have noticed that on Twitter, someone has opened an account in nearly every big pharmaceutical company's name – presumably squatting on the name – so you may want to think about your approach.)
It also means that some of your brands, particularly OTC brands, would be well-served by a Facebook page. Facebook allows you to communicate directly with customers who are the most pre-disposed to your product and probably are fans. It allows you to get a point of view out there that can be sent on by them to people that matter.
That is just the tip of the iceberg and I'm out of time and room. But assess your ability now. It is starting way behind matters to try and put together a crisis response to digital events if you haven't got the infrastructure and understanding ahead of time. Don't make me say "I told you so."